Division II college basketball preview
Seger Bonifant comes from a small Ohio town in the heart of Amish Country. Berlin (population 898 in 2010) isn’t far from any of the familiar cities - an hour south of Akron, two hours west of Pittsburgh, 90 minutes south of Cleveland - but it’s not necessarily on the way to anywhere either.
He played a key role on the basketball team at Hiland High School, scoring 1,456 points in a career that closed with consecutive state championships. A 6-foot-5 forward who was primarily a perimeter threat, his only scholarship offers came from the Division II level of college basketball.
Although he played for a remote high school, his AAU summer team played a national schedule and that’s where West Liberty (W. Va.) coach Jim Crutchfield first watched him play. He loved Bonifant’s competitive nature and winning background, started recruiting him in the summer after his junior year. He felt then, as he often does with prospects on his radar, that Bonifant was talented enough to thrive at the mid-major level of Division I basketball. Based on his production at West Liberty, it’s safe to call that an accurate assumption.
Bonifant, now 6-7, 200 pounds, enters his senior season with the Hilltoppers as NCAA Division II’s career 3-point field goal percentage leader. He’s made 259 of 480 attempts (54 percent). Last season he led the nation in 3-pointers made (117) and 3-point percentage (52.2 percent). He averaged 22.8 points, was a consensus All-American and Basketball Times named him the DII Player of the Year.
“If I were at a Division I school I would’ve recruited him,” Crutchfield said. “Maybe I look more for shooters, but he’s a jump-shooter with a quick release and perfect form.”
The Hilltoppers' up-tempo style built around offensive freedom has fueled Bonifant’s offensive efficiency. They’ve led the nation in scoring eight of the last 10 seasons and in 2014-15 averaged 100.5 points in a 28-4 season which reached the third round of the NCAA tournament.
Still, what’s impressed Crutchfield more is watching Bonifant evolve from shooter to scorer. After shooting 49 free throws total in his first two seasons, he shot 124 last season.
“My freshman and sophomore year I just camped out by the 3-point line,” Bonifant said. “I didn’t really want my game to be like that. I started going into the gym every day, now I can get to the paint. As I expanded my game more it helps me get better open looks outside.”
Bonifant also made 137 2-point field goals last season - 40 more than his freshman and sophomore seasons combined.
“He has a mid-range game, can go into the post with his back-to-the-basket, can put the ball on the floor,” Crutchfield said. “He’s an all-around player, not only scoring but defense, rebounding and a team leader.”
Everything appears in place for Bonifant to have a special senior season.
The NCAA Division II career 3-point percentage record is 51.3 percent, held by Scott Martin, who played at Rollins College from 1988-91. It’s a mark Bonifant should break, but he plans to ignore it during the season. West Liberty enters the season No. 3 in the preseason poll, so there are realistic national title dreams. Playing professionally is another obvious goal.
“It’s been my dream since the 7th grade,” Bonifant said. “I feel like the sky is the limit. I’d love to get on a NBA Summer League team or in the right situation overseas.”
Looking back at last season: Florida Southern defeated Indiana (Pa.) 77-62 in the championship game in Evansville, Indiana, to cap a 36-1 season and win its first national championship since 1981. The Moccasins needed a late 3-pointer from All-American guard Kevin Capers to knock off Bellarmine in the semifinals. Coach Linc Darner capitalized on the success and was named coach at Division I Wisconsin-Green Bay in April. Replacing him is Mike Donnelly, who spent the last five seasons as coach at Southern Connecticut State. He must replace all five starters. The Moccasins visit Duke for an exhibition game Oct. 30.
Preseason poll: Augustana (S.D.) is No. 1 in the NABC Division II preseason rankings, released Oct. 27th. The Vikings are led by 6-9, 240-pound senior Daniel Jansen, who has scored 1,534 points in three seasons. Augustana was 31-3 last season and earned one of eight No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Division II tournament, but was upset by No. 4 Northwest Missouri State 66-65 in the second round.
Rest of the top 10: 2. Tarleton State, Texas (31-4); 3. West Liberty, West Virginia, (28-4); 4. Bellarmine, Kentucky, (31-4); 5. Lincoln Memorial, Tennessee, (30-3); 6. Mount Olive, North Carolina, (31-4); 7. Indiana, Pennsylvania, (31-7); 8. Indianapolis, Indiana, (25-6); 9. Minnesota State-Moorhead (35-4); 10. Colorado School of Mines (23-5).
Nation’s leading returning scorer: Ryan Stephan, Colorado Mesa. The 6-10 center Lakewood, Colorado, native averaged 25.3 points per game (fourth in the nation). He cracked the 30-point barrier in seven games. Made 172 free throws and 40 3-pointers, shot 57 percent from the field and also snagged 8.5 rebounds. Scored a career-high 40 points against then No. 2 University of Colorado - Colorado Springs on Jan. 10, steering Colorado Mesa to a 100-92 upset. Averaged 4.5 points as a freshman.
Key departure: Darren White, a 6-5, 180-pound guard, put up LeBron James-like numbers last season at University of Colorado - Colorado Springs. He averaged 25.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists, leading the Mountain Lions to a 27-6 record and the second round of the NCAA Division II tournament. But after three All-American seasons and 1,912 points for UCCS, White transferred north to Division I program Colorado for his senior season. He’ll sit out the 2015-16 season per NCAA transfer regulations and has one year eligibility remaining. UCCS is not ranked and did not receive votes in the preseason poll.
This year’s tournament: The Elite Eight is March 23-26 at the Ford Center in Frisco, Tex. CBS Sports extended its contract to broadcast the Division II semifinals and finals through 2024.
Tip-ins: Mount Olive (North Carolina) College returns four double-figure scorers from a school-record 30-win team that reached the Elite Eight of the DII tournament. The Trojans have earned seven national tourney berths since 2004 … Tarleton State (Texas) won a school-record 31 games and reached the Final Four for the second time in school history last season. The Texans are expected to contend for the title again, because they welcome back three starters among their nine returnees … National semifinalist Bellarmine (Kentucky) brings back double-figure scorers Josh Derksen (11.6 ppg) and Rusty Troutman (11.3 ppg) for coach Scott Davenport, who has led the program to three Final Fours in the last five years including the 2011 national championship … Herb Magee returns for his 49th season as coach at Philadelphia U. with a 1009-399 (.712) career record. Last season, Philadelphia U. had four players in the top seven nationally in minutes per game, and return three of the four.