2020-21 PREVIEW: Grace Basketball hungry for success again

WINONA LAKE, Ind. – Last season left a sense of unfinished business for Grace’s men’s basketball team.

The Lancers were playing at a high level near the end of the season with three ranked wins in the final two weeks.

Grace finished third in the Crossroads League under first-year head coach Scott Moore and earned a spot in the 2019 NAIA Div. II National Championships.

But hours before the Lancers were set to take the court at the national tournament, COVID-19 dealt a fatal blow to basketball seasons across the country.

This season, the Lancers are eager to return to NAIA Nationals after last year’s disappointing end.

“We want how last year ended to set the tone for what’s to come,” Moore said. “Our team is hungry and wants to taste the success we had last year again. We are a young team, but we are also experienced.”

Grace will need to find replacements for a key graduated class. The Lancers graduated two of their top three leading scorers from last year (Charlie Warner, Jaret Sons) as well as leading assist-getter Braxton Linville.

Grace also faces a new challenge — adopting to a single-division NAIA. Last year, Grace finished the season ranked No. 13 in the last-ever NAIA Division II poll. This year, despite being chosen to finish fourth in the challenging Crossroads League, Grace did not receive a vote in the single-division NAIA Preseason Coaches’ Poll.

For the Lancers to earn national respect this year, the team will need to lean on its upperclassmen for experience.

Senior Haden Deaton was an All-League and honorable mention NAIA All-American last year. The rugged wing posted 16.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 2019-20 and has nearly 1,500 points in his Lancer career.

“Haden is an absolute gamer. He shows up and finds a way to will guys to victory,” Moore said. “This year he is doing a great job bringing other guys along so that he’s not doing everything by himself. He’s accepted that challenge well.”

Deaton will have the benefit of two proven scorers returning to the roster this winter. Matt Jennings (12.8 points, 2.9 assists per game) was a dynamic scorer last year.

Myles Johnson earned a spot on the league’s All-Freshman Team after producing 9.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game; he was even better in conference games with 11.6 points per game. Johnson shot a team-high 59 percent from the floor and 48 percent on 3-pointers.

Off the bench, Eddie Gill IV is back after an injury-shortened season, and Hank Smith returns after drilling 36 percent of his 3-point tries as a freshman. The duo give Grace a unique energy boost from the bench and will be counted on this year for more of the same.

Senior Cody Holmes provides a steady, stable presence in the post. Holmes played in all 30 games last year and shot 46 percent from the floor. Sophomore Jaylen Reese also will play on the varsity squad after being a JV member last year.

Five other new players will dress for the Lancers in 2020-21, including several with potential to make a significant impact.

Frankie Davidson is a sophomore, transferring in from the University of Indianapolis (NCAA Div. II). The former Blackhawk Christian star is a 6-foot-7 matchup nightmare for opponents with his unique ability to take over games, according to Moore. “From day one in practice, you could see the ability that Frankie has to make us a special team. He’s a tremendous passer and will have a big impact,” Moore said.

Jake Wadding and Elijah Malone were highly recruited signings for Moore. Wadding is an accomplished 6-5 forward from Chesterton High School. He posted 16.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game as a senior and was named the MVP of the Duneland Athletic Conference.

Malone is a skilled post player. The 6-8 forward shot 72 percent from the floor during his senior season, tallying 15.7 points, 8.2 boards and 2.3 blocks per game.

A set of twins also figure to be key contributors this winter. Jake Gibbs and Cade Gibbs redshirted last year for the Lancers and are eager to finally get on the hardwood.

Jake is a 6-5 point guard with the ability to shoot, pass, dribble and score. Cade is a 6-6 wing who is a “relentless attacker” offensively, according to Moore, and is eyeing a starting spot as a freshman.

As a whole, Moore believes his four-player freshman class has the chance to be special. “You couldn’t ask for four more coachable players than these guys. I usually say that freshmen don’t get a chance to compete in our league right away unless they are special, but I can tell you right now all four of these freshmen are special.”

Ultimately, Moore is sure that the Lancers will absorb this season with a deeper appreciation because of last year’s heartbreak.

“Our first scrimmage game was the most fun I’ve had since March. You take basketball for granted sometimes, but I’m just looking forward to the simple things now — taking a bus ride, eating a meal on the road, going on recruiting trips with my coaches. We’re all eager for some sort of normalcy, and I’m confident I won’t take these experiences for granted the rest of my career.”

The Lancers will begin their season on the road Wednesday with a trip to Concordia. Grace’s home opener is slated for Friday with a 7:30 p.m. contest against Ohio Christian.