Northwestern’s boys basketball team returns the bulk of its roster from last season, which is not to say the Tigers are rich in experience.
“Like many others, we had a strange [2020-21 season], only playing 14 games and really not having our entire team until well after Christmas. We still have limited game experience for a lot of these kids,” veteran coach Jim Gish said.
Northwestern entered last season with a completely rebuilt roster — and then had its first eight games either postponed or canceled for COVID reasons before finally playing its first game on Dec. 23. The Tigers opened 0-10 as their lack of experience showed. They finished 2-12.
The Tigers scored just 42.9 points per game as turnovers and inconsistent perimeter shooting held them back.
“I do believe our shooting has drastically improved. The guys put in a lot of time in the gym and in the weight room,” Gish said. “We believe we’ll handle the ball better, but we still have a lot to learn about the varsity level and taking care of the basketball on a continuous basis.”
Eli Edwards, a 6-foot-5 senior center, leads the returning group. He provided a bright spot last season by averaging 17.4 points and 10 rebounds per game and shooting an area-best 64.4% from the field. He ranked No. 2 in the area in both scoring and rebounding. He was a KT All-Area second-team pick.
“He puts a lot of time into his game,” Gish said. “He’s a smart kid on the floor, he does a lot of things on his own to make himself better. Those things pay off.”
The senior class also has 6-2 center Caden Lechner (3.0 points, 3.9 rebounds), 5-10 guard A’Marion Conyers (1.2 points) and 5-11 guard Callen Bennett.
Gish returns 5-10 junior Mario Reed to the backcourt. He was second on the team in scoring last season with a 12.2 average.
“Mario saw a lot of pressure all year. We didn’t have quite the shooters that we’d like to have around the perimeter so a lot of teams keyed on him. He still found ways to score and defensively he can be very much a lockdown defender,” Gish said. “He’s put on 10 or 12 pounds of solid muscle. He looks like a ready-to-go junior.”
The Tigers also return their point guard, 6-0 sophomore Quentin Yeakel. He averaged 2.0 points and a team-high 3.0 assists during his freshman season, which was a trial by fire.
Gish is looking for 6-2 junior forward Connor Bostic to fill an expanded role. He scored 2.9 points last season.
“Connor puts a ton of time into the game of basketball. He has shown so much improvement from last year to this year. I can’t wait to see how it pays off for him,” Gish said.
Also in the mix for playing time are 6-5 junior forward Koen Berry, 6-1 junior forward Connor Austin, 6-1 junior guard Hudson Harris and 5-11 junior guard Cayden Greer.
Gish sees depth as the Tigers’ best asset going into the season.
“We feel we have a lot of guys who can play,” he said. “There’s 160 minutes [of playing time] in a game and that makes for a very competitive gym. We do believe we’ll be able to pull some guys off the bench and change the style of play if needed.”
Gish is taking a week-by-week approach with the team. He knows small improvements each week can add up.
“We still have enough inexperience that we’re curious to see what the gradual incline of the season looks like,” he said. “We know that with our guys getting experience that we have the ability to have a very nice team as the year progresses.”
Northwestern is hoping to make gains in the Hoosier Conference after falling to the bottom of the East Division last season. The Tigers swept the division and conference titles in 2019 and had a runner-up finish in the division in 2020.
“Our side of the conference is so balanced. There’s so many good teams,” Gish said. “I think we’re going to be a very competitive team. I think anybody on our side of the conference on any given night can beat someone else so it’s going to be who has the most consistent play.”
Northwestern plays in Sectional 20, which is at Maconaquah this season. The Tigers and Mac are joined by Western, Peru, Benton Central, West Lafayette and defending champion Twin Lakes.