The Augustana Vikings reached the acme of the Division II men’s basketball world last season. They entered the 2015-16 season as the preseason No. 1 in the coaches poll and finished out the year by grabbing their first-ever national championship.
The road back will have quite the different feel this season.
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The Vikings began their turnaround under head coach Tom Billeter after the 2013-14 season. Coming off a mere 16-win campaign and heading into 2014-15 with nary a senior in their starting lineup, Augustana surprised the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference by going 31-3 and capturing the NSIC title before a devastating one point loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Fueled by the sting of that loss and three of the stronger seniors in the NSIC, the Vikings went 34-2, winning their second consecutive NSIC crown and eventually hoisting the championship trophy in Frisco, Texas.
“It’s awesome,” senior guard Adam Beyer said of entering this season as a defending champion. “Not many people can say that. We don’t have the same reasons as last year, but we still have a lot to play for this year. I know Jordan [Spencer] and I especially have a lot to play for because it was always the “Big Three” with them. This is mine and Jordan’s year to show everybody that we were part of that team, and now, we can lead a team. We have an edge from that.”
Alex Richter, Casey Schilling and Daniel Jansen — the “Big Three” seniors who were so large in constructing the turnaround — are gone, leaving players like Adam Beyer and Jordan Spencer in charge of keeping this program on track.
“We didn’t have any change of expectations in conference play,” Beyer said. “We still definitely expect to compete really well within the conference and defend the two-time regular season and conference championship. That’s still our goal. We have a good team. We’re still kind of getting together with the new group. We have a group capable of taking the conference again.”
It’s not as if Augustana was left in bad hands. Spencer and Beyer started all but one game last season. Spencer is currently leading the NSIC in assists with 7.8 per game, while Beyer has transformed his game from role player to star, helping to pace this team both on the court and off of it.
“We definitely understood it was our time to pick it up with those guys gone,” Beyer said. “We took it on ourselves to get everybody going both scoring while keeping the morale up.”
Beyer, as well as becoming a leader, has become a well-rounded player this year. He’s currently averaging 13.6 points and 5.3 rebounds a game, which are huge improvements from last year. Spencer has also stepped up his game, averaging career highs in both points (a team best 15.8 points a night) and assists. Both knew it was a matter of necessity.
“I rolled with the offense and knew Dan [Jansen] or Casey [Schilling] were probably going to get a shot at the end,” Beyer said of the past few seasons. “I was always fine with that because I wanted the team to do well. This year, I need to take more shots and get more points to have an impact if we want to win. It was knowing what the team needed.”
The Vikings entered the season ranked No. 18 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches Preseason Poll. A 10-2 start has them currently outside the Top 25, receiving ten votes in the most recent NABC Poll. Despite the spotlight currently off of them as one of four 5-1 teams tied atop the NSIC, they know they still have a target on their back.
“A lot of the teams in our conference don’t care what we’re ranked,” Beyer said. “The way that we have been beating people, they are still trying to get back at us. It’s almost as if we have a rivalry with everyone in the conference because of our recent success. They don’t look at the rankings. They look at us as the defending national champions.”
Coming out of the two-week holiday break will present the Vikings with arguably their biggest test of the young season. They play back-to-backers Friday and Saturday, taking on Southwest Minnesota State — currently the No. 25-ranked team in the country — followed by a tough Sioux Falls squad on Saturday.
“It’s a huge weekend for us,” Beyer said. “We start out with two really tough games as well. Southwest [Minnesota] is playing really well, too. They’re nationally ranked now. Technically, we’re going to look like the underdogs. This is something that we have to go out and prove this weekend and beat these teams pretty good to show everybody that we are still a great team.”