CHICAGO – There is one specific word that the University of Chicago men's basketball team wants to embrace for the 2017-18 season – persistent.
"That was the word the seniors and the team developed for this season and I believe it has tremendous merit," said Head Coach Mike McGrath. "No matter what happens throughout the year – and there are always challenges – we want to continue to stay focused on our goals."
UChicago enters a new season coming off a 16-9 overall record and a fourth-place finish in the 2016-17 University Athletic Association (UAA) standings. The 17-man roster is a balanced group of four seniors, four juniors, five sophomores and four first-years.
"As always, I expect our squad to be a tight-knit group of great teammates," McGrath said. "The relationships we develop in the program are vital. Additionally, I expect this team to make a great run at the UAA Championship. The league is outstanding and it will be a big challenge to accomplish, but I believe this group has the pieces necessary to do so."
Last year's Maroons boasted a prolific offense that set new school records for points scored, team field-goal percentage (.496) and free throws attempted (627). The graduated senior class were an impactful group that averaged a combined 40 points and 17 rebounds per game. UChicago led the UAA in scoring with 83.3 points per game while allowing 77.9 points per game. Rebounding was a big asset with a +8.4 per game advantage in that category.
With 13 returners, McGrath is counting on his squad to be able to perform in all aspects of the game. "On the floor, I believe that we have a very skilled and versatile team," he said. "We will play unselfishly and pass the ball well. We are working hard at playing in sync with one another, both offensively and defensively, and I think we have the skill set and basketball IQ to do so. It will be fun."
Three-point range was a particular strength last year, and looks to be again this season. The shooting guard duo of senior Jake Fenlon and junior Noah Karras lit up the scoreboard from deep as both players shattered the school record for three-pointers in a season. Fenlon tallied 76 treys (40.9 percent) and Karras was right next to him with 75 threes (44.6 percent). All told, UChicago shot 38.5 percent from beyond the arc and made 9.4 three-pointers per game.
"Jake and Noah are two of the best shooters we've had in my time at Chicago, and we've had many great ones," said McGrath, who begins his 19th season as head coach. "They have the ability to shoot with accuracy and depth on the floor, which is a great aspect that allows our offense to stretch the defense. The nice thing is that we have several other talented shooters and capable offensive players, which should make us hard to guard."
Senior forward Collin Barthel is a returning starter in the paint where he averaged 9.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last year. Junior forward Ryan Jacobsen contributed off the bench with 5.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and a .598 field-goal percentage. At point guard, sophomore Jordan Baum played 19 minutes per game while averaging 3.8 points and 2.7 rebounds.
UChicago will be leaning on its seniors to provide leadership on and off the court.
"Two of our seniors – Collin Barthel and Jake Fenlon – will carry the torch for the team as leaders," McGrath said. "They complement one another very well in terms of their personality. Collin is more vocal and an outwardly intense competitor, while Jake also has that temperament but displays it in a more low key way. This allows them to connect with their teammates in different ways at different times as needed. Our team is lucky to have them in this role."
The Maroon returners at guard also include senior Porter Veach; juniors Max Jacobs and Justin Jackson; and sophomores Jake Berhorst, Mattia Colangelo and Cole Schmitz. Returning forwards include senior Ryan Shearmire and sophomore Sam Sustacek.
"We have a number of talented players in the program who have yet to break into the rotation," McGrath said. "I strongly expect them to contribute this year and we're excited to see how they develop in new roles as we progress."
A quartet of incoming first-years bring plenty of height – all measure between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-9. "We have four newcomers that are each doing very well," said McGrath. "They are talented players and have very good size. They are doing great in practice and will be excellent players at Chicago at some point in their career. It will be interesting to see if they can get in the mix this season, but it is definitely possible."