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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | November 8, 2022

The Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic delivered a perfect DII primer

Northwest Missouri State wins DII National Championship

LAKELAND, FLA. β€” Opening weekend of the 2022-23 DII men's basketball season is in the books. Four teams β€” Northwest Missouri State, Nova Southeastern, Florida Southern and Hillsdale β€” escaped the absolutely loaded field at the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic with 2-0 records.

After sitting courtside for hours of high-level basketball from NCAA DII tournament regulars, let's take an early look at some lessons learned. 

Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic results

Saturday, Nov. 5 – Florida Southern College, George W. Jenkins Field House

  • Hillsdale 64, DBU 57
  • Nova Southeastern 101, Alabama-Huntsville 81
  • Lincoln Memorial 108, Valdosta State 80
  • Florida Southern 96, Flagler 80
  • Northwest Missouri State 78, West Texas A&M 62

Sunday, Nov. 6 

  • Alabama-Huntsville 83, Lincoln Memorial 81
  • Nova Southeastern 95, DBU 65
  • Hillsdale 79, Valdosta State 65
  • Florida Southern 92, West Texas A&M 90
  • Northwest Missouri State 88, Flagler 75

RANKINGS: Here's Wayne Cavadi's Preseason Power 10 rankings

What we learned in Lakeland

1. Florida Southern can straight up ball

Florida Southern, the weekend's host team, didn't simply come out of the tournament a surprising 2-0; the Mocs appear to be an offensive juggernaut with a lot of weapons. Coming into the season, we knew EJ Dambreville was a special player, but it was Wes Bongiorni, Jadin Booth and Dominick Denny that came alive and make this team dangerous. 

"Yeah, I was really happy," head coach Mike Donnelly said. "I said to my assistants we're going to need our sophomore class β€” I think we have seven sophomores β€” to really take that next step. We certainly saw that. If we're going to have a good year, we need that group of guys. The most important thing was for them to gain that confidence, because their roles are elevated, but to see them play with a lot of poise and confidence, it was a really good sign for us."

All three were put into expanded roles this season, and the trio delivered, combining for 57 of the 96 points on opening night. Booth was simply a scoring machine all weekend, dropping 28 in the opener and 25 in the stunner over West Texas A&M. The Mocs came out of the weekend against two DII tournament teams averaging 94 points per game, and while it's a small sample size, it's quite the improvement on the 81.4 points scored last season. Booth's big weekend propelled the hot start and earned him tournament MVP honors. 

"I wasn't expecting to go for that much," Booth said of his huge opening night. "I just wanted to remind people that I'm a really good player. Credit to my teammates for finding me when I was open. I was trusting my work I put in over the summer."

2. Northwest Missouri State starts 2-0... again

Northwest Missouri State won both its games, each one by double digits. It is the fourth season in a row that the Bearcats have opened the year at the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic with a pair of wins.

We know how the other three seasons ended.

If history repeats itself, the Bearcats are on track for their fourth-consecutive title in 2023. Not only has this team β€” for the fourth year in a row β€” lost one of DII men's basketball's star players to graduation, but arguably their best current offensive weapon (Wes Dreamer) went down nine minutes into Game 1 with an injury and has no timetable to return to the court. While Diego Bernard lights the fire (already with 22 rebounds and nine assists on the young season), Luke Waters, Isaiah Jackson and Mitch Mascari all stepped up when needed. But it was freshman Bennett Stirtz who may have left me most impressed. Stepping into this lineup with relative ease, Stirtz averaged 12 points per game with seven assists and five steals over the weekend. The Bearcats may have found yet another weapon ready to explode. 

"We're a tough team," said head coach Ben McCollum after the gritty first win against West Texas A&M. "I kind of knew that going in, but you have to prove it sometimes. [West Texas A&M] comes at you the whole game, and to handle that first game says a lot about our toughness. Not playing well in regards to turnovers, staying with it and still getting the stop? That's the sign of kids that want to win and can handle adversity."

3. Nova Southeastern still scores points by the boatload

Any team led by Jim Crutchfield is going to be in the conversation for highest scoring team in DII. You would think losing Nick Smith, Sekou Sylla and Eddie Puisis β€” who combined for nearly 50 points a game last year β€” would leave the Sharks needing some time to get into midseason form. 

Nah.

Nova Southeastern scored 196 points over the weekend. RJ Sunahara is back and is such a presence both offensively and defensively and is going to keep the Sharks in every game, while transfer Will Yoakum from West Liberty is well versed in Crutchfield's high-octane offense and quickly fit right in. Kobe Rodgers is a scoring machine, but Dallas Graziani could be the X-factor for this team. After missing almost all last year with injury, he brought the energy and ran the court, drilling 3-pointers and filling the stat sheet in both games. "Yeah, I was excited to be back on the floor," Graziani said. "That's what I try do, bring the energy, keep it going, and play with high intensity. Everybody else did a great job getting open, all my assists weren't very hard to get."

4. Surprise, surprise... Hillsdale is still a force to be reckoned with

(Photo credit: David Dermer)

Hillsdale is coming off maybe the best two years in program history. After making back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances β€” highlighted by the Chargers first-ever trip to the DII Men's Elite Eight last yearβ€” Hillsdale entered the season as one of the "interesting teams to watch" just outside the preseason Power 10. That was because two-time G-MAC player of the year and All-American Patrick Cartier and Austen Yarian were no longer with the team.

Hillsdale was the first winner of the 2022-23 season and then won again by 14 on Day 2 to leave Lakeland a perfect 2-0. Sophomore Joe Reuter, the reigning conference freshman of the year, is an absolute beast. He scored 39 total points and ripped down 18 rebounds to help lead the way, but this team has balance.

"I talked to our guys about just competing," head coach John Tharp said. "That's the one thing that doesn't graduate. The tradition, some of those things that we've done β€” that doesn't graduate. We're a fine-line team, and we did, we competed and had some guys that made some plays."

The G-MAC is pretty loaded at the top this season, and albeit a small sample size, Hillsdale showed it is back for another title run.

5. Alabama Huntsville sends a loud message to the Gulf South Conference

These Chargers may have played the most impressive game in the entire tournament. Losing all-conference guard CJ Williamson days before to injury, UAH was searching for a new identity. The Chargers were blown out on opening day, falling to the high-flying Sharks by 20 and headed into Game 2 having to play a Lincoln Memorial team that shattered tournament records that very same day.

With less than 24 hours to regroup, this squad came out and won a thriller against the Railsplitters 83-81 to leave the tournament with a split. You want to talk grit? This team has it. You want to talk resilience? They check that off, too. And by the way, they have two really good players in Chaney Johnson and Max Shulman that may wind up two of the very best in the GSC. 

"If I had to do it again, I'd want to play Nova and then play Lincoln Memorial," head coach John Shulman said. "And I want to scrimmage Northwest Missouri on Monday. We came down here to get better. We lost a really good player; we better figure it out. There's no way better to figure it out than to play really good people."

6. Lincoln Memorial rewrites the Hall of Fame Classic record books

Yes, the Railsplitters were on the wrong side of the scoreboard to close out the tournament, but this is no easy field to navigate. What Lincoln Memorial did in the first game of the tournament was really fun to watch and speaks more to what this team is capable of this season. 

Lincoln Memorial won the opener 108-80. Six players scored in double figures while three players posted double-doubles. The Railsplitters set the single-game tournament record for points (108), field goals made (41), rebounds (56) and assists (31). Chase Rankin, who tied for the DII lead in triple doubles last season, is an absolute machine and missed a triple double by one rebound in the opener. But all those stats β€” and there are a lot of them β€” only tell half the story of Rankin.

"His leadership, him being so mature," head coach Jeremiah Samarrippas said of what Rankin brings to the team. "We have a bunch of guys on our team that can be emotional. Their emotions fluctuate and he's the guy that holds our group together. When something goes bad, we hit adversity, he's the guy pulling them together with the next-play mentality. His leadership is invaluable in our program." 

7. West Texas A&M put to the test

(Photo credit: David Dermer)

The Buffs have become NCAA DII tournament regulars, and not only that, are accustomed to deep runs. They faced two of the tougher tests of the weekend β€” the defending national champions and the home team with the rowdy opening-weekend crowd β€” and came out a surprising 0-2.

Despite the tough start, there is still plenty of talent on this team to turn it around. 

Julius Brown is a special player. He is quick to the hole and can lead the high-paced attack of the guard-heavy offense. It was the first look at transfer Damion Thornton, and he looked really good, scoring 13 and 23 while shooting 66% on the weekend. In both games, the Buffs pretty much played dead even in the first half with both opponents, so it is simply a matter of closing things out as the season goes on. That is easier said than done, but if any team can quickly turn it around and go on a run, it is West Texas A&M.

"There are a lot of new guys on the team," said guard Zach Toussaint, who broke the 1,000-point mark for his career on opening night. "We're still feeling each other out and working together shows that we can hang with the best team in the nation right now. The closer we come as a team, the sky's the limit and watch out for us."

8. The best of the rest

Flagler, Valdosta State and DBU all left Lakeland without a win, but that didn't mean there weren't plenty of bright spot.

  • Flagler, coming off the most dominant two-year stretch in its DII history, is now a young team looking to mesh new faces. Transfers Kyle Young made the All-Tournament team and Malik Bryant looked like a Flagler veteran. While there will be ups and downs, new head coach Blake Selland is the right guy for the job. "It's only November," Selland said. "What a tough start for us, but what a great opportunity. We got four sophomores on the floor with Malik [Bryant], a junior and new in our system. It's awesome to see the young talent out there flying around, playing together. I tell them every day, we got to just keep stepping in the right direction."
  • Coming off an opening-day loss and having to face Nova Southeastern one day later is no easy task for anyone, so DBU handled it as well as anyone could. This is another team meshing new faces into the mix but have a pair of transfers that can play a big role for them. Ta’Jay Dunlap was very impressive in his Patriots' debut, leading the team with 15 points while Micaiah Abii is a built like a linebacker, but can move down low and shoot the 3. "They did some good things," said head coach Blake Flickner. "The real trick is figuring out how all the pieces fit together. When you add new players in, even if they're really high-level players, everybody's role kind of shifts. We'll learn from this, and we'll get better from this."
  • Valdosta State had the dubious honor of opening against the steamroller that was Lincoln Memorial, but both Cam Hamilton and sophomore newcomer Caden Boser were bright spots to build off of. In fact, Boser had a pair of really strong games in Lakeland. "I got asked that question last night, 'what happens when you face adversity?'," said head coach Mike Helfer. "We got punched in the mouth pretty quick out there, but our guys didn't back down. They played hard, played to the finish. I was proud, and these two guys battled."

9. Players to watch in 2022-23

Some of these players have been discussed, but the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic All-Tournament Team has quite a few big names to watch. Don't be surprised if every one of these names is on the first Bevo Francis watchlist later this season.

All-Tournament Team

  • Chaney Johnson (UAH)
  • Max Shulman (UAH)
  • E.J. Dambreville (Florida Southern)
  • Joe Reuter (Hillsdale)
  • Kyle Goessler (Hillsdale)
  • Dallas Graziani (Nova Southeastern)
  • RJ Sunahara (Nova Southeastern)
  • Kyle Young (Flagler)
  • Luke Waters (Northwest Missouri State)
  • Diego Bernard (Northwest Missouri State)

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