Division II basketball: Five games to watch
Late Saturday afternoon will be a moment that Alabama-Huntsville senior Greg Gardner will soak up and store in his memory bank.
Gardner’s four years as the Chargers point guard has included many memorable moments. As a freshman, Alabama-Huntsville reached the Sweet 16. Last year, the Chargers were picked fourth, but were co-Gulf South regular-season champions, won the conference tournament and made the NCAA Division II tournament.
“It was definitely a good year and a year people weren’t expecting from us,” Gardner said.
At the midway point in the season, Alabama-Huntsville is having another strong year. The Chargers are 11-5 overall and 8-3 and in a three-way tie for first in the Gulf South Conference.
At 4 p.m. ET Saturday, the Chargers get to showcase what their program is all about when they take on West Florida in a game that will be televised on the American Sports Network. The women’s game will air first at 2 p.m.
“I was very excited when I found out we got that,” Gardner said. “I know our program is super excited to play on TV and hopefully the community and everybody can rally around it and we can get a good crowd here. It is going to be good experience and hopefully good exposure for our program and our university.”
For Gardner, it seems like it was only a couple of weeks ago he was packing his bags in Indianapolis and heading to Huntsville for his freshman season of basketball in the 2012-13 school year.
Gardner was joining a winning program led by head coach Lennie Acuff. The Chargers were coming off two successful seasons that saw runs to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.
The two things that sold Gardner on the program was Acuff and the camaraderie of the players. On his visit, he liked the family atmosphere.
“Being under coach Acuff has been a huge blessing,” Gardner said. “He is a family man and all about the right stuff. He translates that to his players and it translate through the entire program, just being about the right things on and off the court.”
Acuff said Gardner came into somewhat of a difficult situation. He was viewed as kind of the heir apparent point guard, who was going to pick up right where Josh Magette left off. Magette led the Chargers to back-to-back Elite Eights, was a first-team All-American and conference player of the year.
Magette left as the school’s all-time leader in assists and is currently playing in the NBA D-League
“I think a lot of people thought he would pick up where Josh left off,” Acuff said. “That was totally unfair to him.”
Gardner, though, was able to handle that kind of pressure. After all, he grew up in Indiana, a state that loves basketball.
“It was a great experience growing up,” Gardner said. “I got to play against a lot of good players, some who are in the NBA or are playing high and low Division I. I think the level of competition let me know I had to work hard. The level of play around me helped raise my level a little bit.”
Gardner played in all 31 games his freshman season as the Chargers made a run to the South Regional championship game and only a two-point loss to Florida Southern prevented Alabama-Huntsville from a third straight trip to the Elite Eight.
“It was a lot of fun and good experience,” Gardner said. “We had three or four seniors who were very successful and very good players. I learned a lot from them and tried to keep some of the things they taught me and held on to them my entire career. Now that I am a senior, I try to pass it on to the younger guys and try to keep the tradition of this winning program going.”
Gardner is having a strong senior season. He is averaging 12.9 points per game and is shooting 53 percent from the field. He is also averaging 5.1 assists per game.
“He maybe has been the most improved player we’ve had over four years,” Acuff said. “He is one of the leading scorers on the team. He is going to end up second at our school in all-time assists to Magette.
“Most importantly, he has helped us win two league championships and we are tied for first as we come down the stretch and hopefully, we get a third.”
Entering Thursday night’s home game against Valdosta State, the Chargers have only 11 regular-seasons left. They are currently tied for first with Delta State and West Georgia. There are two more teams just one game behind them.
“I don’t know if there is a top-10 team in the league, but there is a lot of parity,” Acuff said. “It is highly competitive. From top to bottom, this is the best the league has been since I have been here.”
It is a grind, but a fun grind, Gardner said.
“We like where we are,” Gardner said. “There are a lot of stuff we can improve on, especially defense. We are really focused on defense in practice. We have pretty much the same team back as last year and we added one key piece. He has helped us a lot. We feel like we can keep growing. As our coach says, our ceiling is pretty high. We feel if we do the right things and work in practice we can hopefully get there.”
Gardner brings the same competitive spirit to the classroom. He is majoring in communication with a minor in business management. In the previous two years, he has made the Gulf South Academic honor roll.
The biggest thing Gardner has learned over the years is time management, making sure he devotes enough time to his studies and basketball to be successful in both.
Acuff is not surprised by what Gardner has accomplished on and off the court. For one, Acuff said Alabama-Huntsville attracts solid students. It is one of the reasons he has been the head coach at the school for 19 years.
“It is one of the best academic institution of higher learning in the South,” Acuff said. “Our ACT scores for incoming freshmen is 26. It is just a really positive environment. You can attract and recruit really good kids and that is what it is all about. I think we have kids who are direct extension of what our student body is about and that is bright kids with a bright future.”
The other reason Acuff is not surprised by Gardner’s success in the classroom is because of Gardner’s family.
“He has a great foundation at home,” Acuff said. “He is what you want your kids to be about. He values education. He competes in the classroom as hard as he does on the court. He is a fine young man of high character. He wants to be a college coach. He has a tremendous future ahead of him.”
As for the immediate future, Gardner is just going to soak in each game as it comes. Saturday will be one of those games to savor.
“I’m trying to make as many memories as possible and just enjoy the ride and hopefully we go pretty deep in March,” he said.
IMPORTANT UPCOMING MEN’S GAMES
No. 4 Midwestern State, 16-1 overall and 5-0 in the Lone Star Conference, plays at No. 11 Angelo State, 14-3 and 2-3, at 4 p.m. CT on Jan. 23. Senior guard Jordan Stevens leads Midwestern State in scoring at 15.8 per game. Senior forward Stedman Allen is averaging 16.8 points and Senior guard Tre Bennett is averaging 16.5. Angelo State has a sparkling overall record, but can’t afford to lose many more LSC games, especially at home. This game will have significant regional rankings implications down the road.
Alaska-Anchorage, 15-4 overall and 8-0 in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, plays at No. 8 Western Oregon, 14-2 and 7-1, at 7:30 p.m. PT on Jan. 21. They are the top two teams in the GNAC. Alaska Anchorage is led in scoring by junior guard Sekou Wiggs, who is averaging 24.0 points. Senior forward Andy Avgi leads Western Oregon in scoring with a 21.0 average.
IMPORTANT SATURDAY WOMEN’S GAMES
Minnesota Crookston, 12-4 overall, plays at home against Northern State, 13-4, a 4 p.m. CT. Both teams at 9-3 and tied for first with Minnesota State-Moorhead in the North Division of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. Senior forward Katrina Nordick is averaging 17.4 points for Minnesota Crookston. Sophomore forward Jill Conrad leads Northern State in scoring with a 12.9 average.
No. 12 ranked Emporia State, 14-3 overall and 8-3 in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, plays at Washburn, 11-6 and 7-4, at 5 p.m. CT at Lee Arena. Both programs have proud, winning traditions. Emporia State won the NCAA Division II title in 2010 and Washburn claimed the national title in 2005. In Kansas, the rivalry between the two schools in known as the “Turnpike Tussle.” Both teams are fighting to stay close to Missouri Western and Fort Hays State.