The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference is in for an exciting weekend of men’s basketball. Three undefeated teams will face off in an early battle of PSAC supremacy in a two-day span. Leading the way is the 7-0 Indiana University of Pennsylvania Crimson Hawks.
IUP is used to being in the big games. Head coach Joe Lombardi has made the Crimson Hawks into a PSAC perennial power, compiling a 225-85 record in his ten years there. After reaching the national championship game for the second time in 2015, his 21-8 2016 Crimson Hawks found themselves on the outside of the NCAA tournament looking in.“Every year, we expect to go to the NCAA tournament,” Lombardi said. “I thought we were worthy last year. We were probably the ninth team in. There were other years where we had some good fortunate, and the tournament rolled our way. I stress to our kids you have to be championship worthy. You can control that, but you can’t control the way other things turn out. It’s a long season. Individuals can improve a lot over those four months. If you have a lot of guys doing that on both ends of the floor, your team’s ceiling can get really lifted up.”
Last season saw a lot of freshmen and sophomores pushed into early action, something that is somewhat uncharacteristic of Lombardi’s teams. Those players, however, were able to use that experience and come out firing this season, jumping out to seven straight victories with two PSAC wins already under their belt. They have climbed the rankings every week as well, now sitting as the No. 12 team in the most recent National Association of Basketball Coaches Poll.
“We were awfully inexperienced last year,” Lombardi said. “We had four guys that had been in the program before, and one of those guys, our starting center, got hurt after the fifth or sixth game. We were really dominated by two players offensively last year. This year we have a more diverse offense, a more balanced offense. We put five players on the floor, and they can all shoot threes. We have five or six guys capable of double-digits every night.”
One of those freshmen last season was Dante Lombardi. If the last name looks familiar it should, for he is the son of IUP’s head coach. It is the second time Joe has had the honor of coaching his son, first coaching Dom a few years back and now Dante. With an expanded role this season, Dante has already risen up to the challenge and has shown much improved play from his freshman season.“I feel very blessed to be able to coach him,” Lombardi said. “He’s a gym rat, and his passion for the game is priceless. It’s not always as much fun as it might look. There’s some added pressures coaching your son, for him and for the coach. Just to be able to have this journey together is pretty special. We have a group of high-character guys that know that Dante has to earn everything. They’re very supportive of him."
This roster is not very senior-laden, with only true senior guard Brandon Spain and redshirt-senior Devon Cottrell — the aforementioned center who saw his 2015-2016 end after just five starts — as elder statesmen. Stepping up and slowly becoming a dominating presence for the Crimson Hawks is sophomore forward Jacobo Diaz. He is currently averaging a double-double for IUP, dropping 17 points and grabbing 10.3 rebounds a night.
“Jacobo is an interesting guy,” Lombardi said. “He’s our best all-around player, but he doesn’t have that swagger that most guys that have been that productive have. He played for Spain in the World Championships. He does a lot of little things well that helps a team win. He’s slowly evolving into a go-to guy. He’s a young man with a lot of ability. It’s been a joy to watch him grow over the last year-and-a-half because he puts a lot of time into improving.”
This weekend will be IUP’s first big test of the season, as they welcome undefeated Shippensburg on Saturday, followed by undefeated and nationally-ranked Kutztown (No. 8) on Sunday. While Lombardi is very aware that the two teams are NCAA tournament-ready and two of the tougher teams the Crimson Hawks will face all season, he also knows that this is just the beginning of a very long season.
“We try to be consistent with our approach,” Lombardi said. “We want to be the best we can be whenever we step on the court, whether it’s practice or a game. We try to develop that in our culture and mindset, and I think it’s played out well for us over the years. Our guys are definitely aware that these are two teams that will be in the mix all year long. In all truthfulness, there is a little more to it, but whether we win both games or lose both games, it certainly is not going to make or break our season. I think we are looking at it as a great opportunity this time of year to compete against teams at their level.”
The PSAC is one of the larger conferences in DII basketball, with two divisions of nine teams battling for a mere two or three spots to have the honors to continue playing deep into March. With IUP atop the West Division and Kutztown and Shippensburg tied atop the East, this weekend’s action should be both very exciting and very important into staking their claim as the top dog in the PSAC.