MEMPHIS, Tenn. – For Christian Brothers seniors Zack Warner and Scott Dennis, things have come full circle.
As freshmen, they played on a CBU team that made it to the Division II Elite Eight.
Now, after two troubling seasons, including last year when both had to shut it down because of injuries right around this time, the 15th-ranked Bucs seemed poised to make another strong postseason run.
CBU is 15-3 overall, 6-1 in the Gulf South Conference after ripping visiting Delta State last Saturday, 75-49. Not only did the Bucs bounce back from a defeat that broke an 11-game winning streak, they continued a trend where they’ve won their league games in lopsided fashion.
“We have a great offense and we’re executing it about as well as I’ve ever seen it executed,” said Zack Warner, one of those seniors who has thrived in coach Mike Nienaber’s Princeton five-man motion offense.
“And it’s hard to defend,” said the 6-foot-9 Warner, who leads CBU with 17.9 points per game, grabs 5.6 rebounds and is second on the team with 63 assists. “It’s hard to scout. It’s not an offense where we’re calling something, it’s an offense where you’re reading situations and if they’re denying we’re back-cutting and if they’re not we’re handing off and stuff like that.”
Stuff like hitting 38 percent of their 3-pointers with no less than six Bucs hitting 20 or more from beyond the arc this season.
“This is a perfect system for him,” said Nienaber, 217-139 in his 13th year at CBU.
The lanky Warner can step out, too. He’s 11 of 31 on 3s.
“Zack’s mid-range game is unbelievable and when he gets in the post he has this little turnaround thing and him being 6-9, no one can block it,” Dennis said. “He’s real wiry and skinny and people don’t think he’s gonna post ‘em up and this year he’s unbelievable in the post. It’s really fun to watch.
“He’s a real dual threat the way he can step out. You don’t see that a lot, especially in Division II.”
Warner’s older brother, Jack, is a former walk-on at LSU and is now a thriving restaurateur in Louisiana, largely because of a handful of sports-themed establishments called “Walk-On’s.”
But Zack, a product of Clayton High School in St. Louis, is on a full ride. As a redshirt-freshman, he was a reserve on a team that finished 25-7 after winning the Gulf South. The Bucs lost in the national quarterfinals to Augusta State after leading by 14 at halftime.
As a sophomore, Warner started every game and averaged 17.6 points and 5.3 rebounds as CBU finished 17-10 overall and 7-7 in the Gulf South.
But last season, he hurt his back. His numbers didn’t drop significantly (14.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg), but his pain rose. It turned out he had a broken bone in his back.
At the same time, Dennis, a 6-6 senior from Cincinnati, was struggling with a stress fracture in his foot. He started on that ’09 team as a freshman (6.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and finished 23rd in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (102 assists, 44 turnovers) and led the Bucs in 3-point shooting percentage (30-65 for 46.2 percent).
His stats got better and better. As a sophomore, Dennis finished ninth in DII in rebounding (11.3 rpg), most in the nation by a guard, and averaged 11.7 points. And last year, he was at it again, averaging 16.1 points and 11.6 rebounds before he, too, had to call it a season.
No wonder CBU limped into the offseason, losing eight of its last 10 to finish 17-11, 5-9 in the GSC.
“I went to a couple of road games, but almost didn’t want to go because it was so hard to watch,” Warner said. “And especially about two weeks later the pain was gone and I felt like I could have gone back out there. But I knew if I ran even once the pain would be back.”
Warner wore a plastic brace for eight months and didn’t get it off until this September. He was cleared to ride a stationary bike in the summer and was allowed to swim.
“But I was in terrible shape,” Warner said. “Around the first of September they told me I could start easing my way back into it. I went to open gym and played one game and felt like I ran a marathon.”
|Rebounds Per Game||5.6||8.8|
|Points Per Game||17.9||15.4|
|• NOTE: Stats as of Jan. 31, 2012|
But by the time practice started last mid-October, he was almost back to full strength.
“I’m in no pain and I think it healed and I’ve gotten all the muscles around it stronger,” Warner said.
Dennis, too, is healthy and having a fabulous season, averaging 15.4 points, a team-high 8.8 rebounds and has hit 27 of 71 3-pointers (38 percent). He also leads the team in assists with 87.
Four other Bucs average between 7.0 and 9.5 points, including sophomore guards Cory McArthy (7.7 ppg, team-high 37 3-pointers) and Harry Green (9.5 ppg, 59 assists).
“The experience that they gained when they played without us last year has been a huge help this year,” Dennis said. “You can see how much confidence they have now and they know we have confidence in them.”
The other starter is junior forward Michael Drake (8.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg), another who got starting experience because of the injuries to Warner and Dennis.
Warner knows this team is good. But as good as 2009?
“This is definitely comparable, but I wouldn’t want to jump the gun and say we’re better yet,” Warner said. “I guess we’re going to have to wait until after the season. But we’re playing pretty good, we’ve beaten some teams pretty good.”
Nienaber, who is from Cincinnati, is a former player at Mississippi College who was the head coach at NAIA Bethel. He took over a team that was 3-22 the year before when he started at CBU in 1999. After last year, he takes nothing for granted.
The Bucs are halfway through the GCS schedule. They are tied for first place with 12th-ranked Alabama-Huntsville, the team that beat them last week, 75-64. The rematch is Feb. 19 at CBU. What’s interesting is that Nienaber visited with Huntsville coach Lenny Acuff to learn more about his motion offense.
In the meantime, the Bucs are home Thursday night against West Florida with an eye on making the 64-team NCAA Tournament field and getting to the Elite Eight, the DII championship gathering, which this year is March 21, 22 and 24 in Highland Heights, Ky., not far from Dennis and Nienaber are from.
“Freshman year was unbelievable, going to the Elite Eight. It was the most fun playing basketball with a team I’ve ever had,” Dennis said. “I remember I told coach I would do anything to get back there again.
“After having last season kind of taken away from us with me and Zack having injuries, this year we’re so hungry and there is a huge sense of urgency in every game we play.
“We know it’s our final season and we’re just trying to go out like the seniors did when we were freshmen.”