New faces lift IUP to familiar spot
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For the first time in four years, Indiana (Pa.) basketball coach Joe Lombardi faced life without dynamic and decorated guards Julian Sanders and Ashton Smith. But Lombardi's peers picked the Crimson Hawks to win the PSAC Western Division anyway.
Score one for the coaches, so far. IUP is 18-3 overall and 14-3 in conference play, perched in first place going into Wednesday night's home game against California (Pa.).
Besides its accuracy, the prediction represented a shout-out to IUP's stature and consistency under Lombardi, whose first two teams were 6-21 and 13-15 after he inherited a program on NCAA probation in 2006.
Even without Sanders and Smith, who combined for more than 35 points a game and finished third and fourth in IUP career scoring, the Crimson Hawks are headed for a fifth straight 20-win season. Also in sight are a potential fourth straight division title and a third conference championship in four years.
“We've been blessed to have a lot of good players, but also guys who buy into the team first,” said Lombardi, a former assistant at Pitt, among other places. “That allows you to replace guys. It's always been more about the program.”
This year's squad is less explosive than its recent predecessors and fails to excite in any statistical category. Nine players get significant minutes. At 13.8 points a game, Gonzaga transfer Mathis Keita is the top scorer. He also leads in rebounds and assists.
“The strength of the team is it does a lot of things well,” said Lombardi, a Sharon native whose name came up in Duquesne's coach search last year. “We haven't been dominant by any stretch, but we find a way to win close games.
“We see improvement, sometimes small and sometimes big,” Lombardi said. “They've been able to buy into a defensive philosophy that allows us to stay in games even when we're not as good at the offensive end as the year before.”
Lombardi said all five seniors will graduate, including guard Scooter Renkin, whose tale of perseverance embodies the squad's intangibles.
Renkin transferred from James Madison after his freshman year, played two years behind Smith and Sanders and redshirted last season. After working hard all summer and eager to return to the court, Renkin came down with mononucleosis. He missed most of the preseason and the first two regular-season games.
“It was a hectic first four weeks,” he said. “Especially after redshirting. It was tough. I remember the first practice I was breathing real heavy. It was weird. I had never not run for three days, let alone four weeks.”
The Crimson Hawks' top 3-point threat, Renkin is second in scoring, assists and rebounds. The numbers are solid, but it's more than about just numbers.
“We're gonna work hard; we have our strategies,” he said. “It's a proven program, and the way we play is never gonna change.”
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