When asked what impressed him most this offseason, Knox men’s basketball coach Rob Purlee noted that it was not something he saw in the weight room or on the basketball court.
“I can tell these guys have spent time together and have become a true team,” Purlee said. “And the chemistry that has been built is more important than any weight lifted, shot taken or distance run, and I think we are a better team for it.”
Chemistry should be an asset for a team that returns eight players from its rotation, including the team’s two leading scorers, juniors Ben Wetherbee, who averaged 11.9 points per game (PPG) and Joe Kozak (11.5 PPG). Kozak also led the team in rebounding with 6.0 rebounds per game (RPG)
Most teams would love to have their leading scorer and rebounder back, and the Prairie Fire also should be boosted by the return of power forward senior Matt Goedeke. Goedeke, who serves as one of three senior co-captains, missed all but six games last season with a broken foot.
“Having Matt back will be huge,” Purlee said. “We really missed him for most of last year and he’s been itching to get back on the court.”
Before his injury, Goedeke averaged 11.5 PPG and 5.5 RPG. Goedeke’s offensive ability will be vital to a team that finished last in the Midwest Conference in scoring last season (just 63 points per game).
On the perimeter, the Prairie Fire also brings back senior captains Peter Cain and Roger Ortiz, junior guards Jacob Lewis and Tanner Carlson, and versatile sophomores Ian Horvath, Yazin Akkawi and Doug Lillibridge. In the paint, the Prairie Fire will return junior Alex Schobert and sophomore Lukas Shaw.
“There is no doubt that depth will be a strength for this team,” Purlee said, “especially when we might be dinged up.”
The Prairie Fire also willbenefit from having Carlson around for a full season. The junior transfer from University of Wisconsin-Platteville notched impressive statistics (11.1 PPG and 4.1 assists per game) in 14 games last season.
Knox also boasts eight recruits, highlighted by 6-foot, 6-inch Air Force Prep Academy transfer David Jones. A 2009 McDonalds All-American nominee from Denver, Jones attracted the attention of Purlee and his staff with his size and athleticism.
“David has the highest upside of any recruit we’ve ever had, and he is definitely going to help us on both sides of the ball,” Purlee said, who also praised freshmen Nathaniel Grady, a 6-foot, 4-inch forward from Antelope, Calif., and Chris McNichols, a 5-foot, 11-inch guard from Skokie, Ill. as players to watch.
“Grady is the consummate student athlete and has the credentials to be a great player, and if McNichols keeps working hard, I can see him having an impact too,” Purlee said. “Of course in the end, it’s all about skill development in the first year—that’s when a player can not only help himself get better, but also the team as a whole.”
In addition to Jones, Grady, and McNichols the Prairie Fire welcomes Johnny Callahan (Reno, Nev.), Tyler Faulkner (Urbana, Ill.), Joshua Jenkins (Peoria, Ill.), Melvin Taylor (Chicago, Ill.) and Adam Worden (Monee, Ill.) to the roster.
The efforts of these newcomers as well as the returnees are working toward improving upon what was a disappointing season last year. The 2009-10 campaign saw the Prairie Fire fail to secure a road victory, and struggle to a 2-21 overall record, but Coach Purlee says there is really only one big adjustment the team must make to see results on the court.
“There were games last year where we played great in stretches, but failed to close the deal. The challenge I’m making to the guys is to play a full 40 minutes of basketball every game, and to be clutch when it matters. That is when we will see the improvements in the win/loss column.”
Knox will open their season with a home game against Eureka College on Nov. 16. Central College (Nov. 18) and Rockford College (Nov. 24) will also visit Memorial Gym in the coming weeks. In December, the Prairie Fire will play six of their seven contests away from home, including two games in Hawaii during the team trip.