WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- With talent and a certain mental toughness on its side, the Whitman College men's basketball team may be poised for a strong run through the Northwest Conference this winter.
"This group has the greatest determination to win of any team in my five years here," Whitman coach Skip Molitor said. "We already feel as if we have jelled. We feel we can win on a consistent basis this season."
Many observers point to Pacific Lutheran University as the preseason team to beat, although Molitor expects Willamette University and Whitworth College to contend for the conference crown as well. He also likes his own team's chances to claim one of the top spots.
"I am confident we will compete very well in the conference," Molitor said. "We can surprise some people and be more competitive for the title than we have been in the past."
A year ago, the Missionaries dropped five of their last six conference games but still finished with an 8-10 record in the final league standings. Several key players return from that squad, including three returning starters, seniors Cameron Evans and Will Washington, and junior Todd Hendry.
Evans, an athletic 6-foot-5 forward who combines quickness and strength, made an immediate impact last winter as a junior college transfer. He led Whitman in rebounding, grabbing 7.7 boards per game, and was second in scoring at 15.4 points per outing. No one was surprised when he earned honorable mention all-conference recognition.
"Putting up the kind of numbers Cameron did last year in his first season is a big accomplishment," Molitor said. "He is such a solid player who gives us great leadership on the floor."
Prior to Whitman, Evans was an all-state high school career in Utah who played two seasons at nationally-ranked College of Southern Idaho and then served a two-year church mission in Portugal.
At 6-foot-4, Washington gives the Missionaries a second high-quality athlete with a nice mix of agility, size and strength. Versatile enough to play guard or forward, Washington was averaging 19 points last season before injuries impacted his productivity. Despite those ailments, he averaged 13.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
"Will is as good an athlete as you will find in our league," Molitor said. "He is a tenacious defender and will lead the charge for us defensively."
Washington also came to Whitman last year as a junior college transfer. Both he and Evans are planning to enroll in medical school after graduating from Whitman.
A 6-foot-1 guard, Hendry is blessed with exceptional quickness and should wreak havoc on defense again this year. He led the Missionaries in steals last season with 37. He also topped the team in assists, handing out 3.8 per game, and averaged eight points at the offensive end.
Hendry does much of his scoring from long range. In 18 conference games last year, he nailed 50.8 percent of his 3-point shots, canning 30 of 59 attempts.
"Todd really came into his own last year," Molitor said. "We didn't necessarily project him as a starter as a sophomore, and yet he ends up leading the league in 3-point shooting."
Although only a junior, Hendry will be playing his final season for the Missionaries. He plans to transfer to the University of Washington next year to finish his education as part of Whitman's 3-2 engineering program.
"Evans, Washington and Hendry are three players who give us a nice nucleus," Molitor said. "All three are very capable of being at the top of the league in leadership and ability. They are really talented and exciting to watch."
Strong team defense will be one of the trademarks for this year's team, Molitor said. "We have definitely assumed a defensive mentality. We will be very exciting and explosive on defense."
Other probable starters this winter include two returning players, 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Kevin Justice and 6-foot-9 junior post player Greg Durkin, and a newcomer, 6-foot-4 junior shooting guard Jimmy Hill.
Justice started seven games last winter as a freshman, parlaying athleticism and good court sense into 6.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game in a total of 22 game appearances. Molitor expects level of play to continue on an upward spiral.
Durkin, who saw limited varsity time in his first two seasons at Whitman, is starting to come into his own, Molitor said. "Greg has had an outstanding fall. He's been a real pleasant surprise. He gives us great size and a great presence in the middle. He will play the post when we want to use a big line-up, or we can use Cameron in the middle when we want to go small."
Hill, who played his first two collegiate seasons at Yakima Valley (Wash.) Community College, was a key contributor last winter on a team that won 25 games and played in the regional championship tournament. Hill was a part-time starter who averaged about nine points a game while shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line.
"Jimmy was a clutch performer, a clutch shooter down the stretch, in several games during the playoffs," Molitor said. "He scored 12 of Yakima's last 14 points in one playoff game. He's also a very versatile player, a solid passer, ball-handler and defender. I expect big things from Jimmy. He's a great team player, and he's been our most consistent player in the preseason."
Hill's shooting ability should help soften the loss of sharp shooter extraordinaire Dan Rough, who graduated last fall after averaging 75 3-point baskets a season over four years. Rough ended his Missionary career as the school's second all-time leading scorer.
"Dan made more 300 3-pointers at Whitman, which is quite an accomplishment," Molitor said. "We will definitely miss Dan's shooting ability, but we're still going to shoot well from the perimeter. We led the conference in 3-point shooting last year, and we should be towards the top again this season."
Other than Rough, key losses from last year's team are Todd Wyatt, a steady all- around player who also graduated, and Mike Keyser, a 6-foot-9 post player who transferred from Whitman to complete his education at another school. A starter for most of the season, Keyser averaged 8.5 points and 4.6 rebounds. Wyatt, a part-time starter, grabbed 4.8 boards and scored 4.7 points per night.
Other players expected to see significant playing time this winter are Rob Lambert, a 6-foot sophomore guard; Jason Berry, a 6-foot-5 sophomore transfer from Wenatchee Valley Community College; and 6-foot-7 freshman Rob Bell.
Lambert, who saw most of his court time with the junior varsity last year, will give the Missionaries more strength and athleticism at the guard spot.
Berry spent two academic years at Wenatchee Valley Community College, although badly sprained ankles forced him to skip one of his basketball seasons there. He has three years of athletic eligibility remaining at Whitman, and Molitor expects him to contribute immediately off the bench.
At 235 pounds, Bell will give Whitman some added size in the low post. He was a two-year starter at his California high school, although a persistent foot injury cost him a good deal of his senior season. That injury, in fact, is expected to keep Bell on the Whitman sidelines until early January.
"Once he is healthy, Rob will give us some very solid play in the post," Molitor said. "He can score, but rebounding and defense are the best parts of his game."
Rounding out the roster are three first-year players, sophomore forwards Stan Darger (6-7, 205) and Brant Arrington (6- 3, 215), and freshman guard Julien Hoisington (6-3, 180).
The Missionaries open their season when they head east to play Nov. 21-22 in a tournament hosted by Penn State-Behrend, an NCAA III school in Erie, PA. They return home to host the annual Wildhorse Resort Classic in late November, before playing their first four Northwest Conference games in early December.
Before resuming its conference slate in January, Whitman will take a holiday swing through British Columbia, Canada. The Missionaries will play a series of three exhibition games against Canadian college teams.
Dave Holden, Whitman College Sports Information, (509)
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