The Caltech men's basketball team rides into the 2011-12 season on a high, having won their final game of last season. The triumph held extreme magnitude as it halted a 26 year conference losing streak. Fourth year coach Oliver Eslinger and company are excited to have put an end to that era of futility and continue the quest of winning the ultra-competitive Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC).
The heroes of last season's hardwood finished just 5-20 but were showered with international media attention. What shouldn't get lost in the frenzy are the numbers that demonstrate how they competed all season -- eight of the conference losses were by 10 points or fewer. Team records set last year include highs for points in a season (1455), blocked shots in a season (92), 3-pointers made in a game (12), and fewest turnovers in a game (5). The non-conference wins are the most NCAA victories in nearly 50 years.
Last season's goal was to decrease turnovers, something the Beavers did in dramatic fashion. In 2009-10, Caltech turned it over 23.4 times per game. In 2010-11, that figure declined to just 14.0 overall and 11.9 in conference play. This season, the emphasis will be on scoring points. Caltech created shots last year, having set a program record for most field goal attempts in a season (1339), but will have to increase its field goal percentage to accumulate more wins.
Though the Beavers saw four-year players Ryan Elmquist and Ziying Wang graduate, a strong core of veterans are back. Leading the charge is a stronghold of juniors, the class comprised of Eslinger's first recruits. With no seniors on the team, these upperclassmen will provide leadership for a number of sophomores and freshmen.
Tri-captains Ethan Boroson, Collin Murphy, and Michael Edwards, all juniors, possess the dedication and skills that have been so important in Caltech basketball's culture shift from reserved melancholia to borderline magnificence. Six-foot-two Boroson played in all 25 games as a sophomore, started six, and finished the season with 17 steals and a positive assist-turnover ratio. The tough-minded 6-0 Murphy saw action in all 25 contests and started 12. Together, the junior duo averaged 4.8 rebounds a game. Both players have spent time as lead guards and playmaking wings.
A major key to the Beavers exists in the tune of junior Edwards. The native of Canyon Country, Calif. possesses great athleticism, length, and skill. The team's tallest player and leading returning scorer (third in the SCIAC in 2011), Edwards averaged 14.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game and totaled 26 steals and 19 blocks while shooting 86.1 percent from the free throw line in 24 starts as a sophomore. The 6-7 wing/forward has already set 10 program records, including most points in an NCAA game (35) and 3-pointers made in a season (62).
Other returning starters are sophomores Todd Cramer and Mike Paluchniak. The 6-4 Cramer (11.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg), a second-team all-conference selection and the only SCIAC freshman to be honored in the post-season, led the league in assists with 4.9 per game (58th nationally) and was second in assist-turnover ratio (1.64). A 6-2 sharpshooter, Paluchniak (7.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg) topped the SCIAC in minutes played (37.0 mpg), finished seventh in the league in 3-point field goals made per game (1.6), and is the squad's best defender.
Six-foot junior guards Mason Freedman and Pan Wang, along with classmate forwards Marcus Lucas and Alex Runkel bring veteran experience to the ship. Freedman's jumper and Wang's improved versatility will provide much needed production at both ends of the court. The 6-4 Lucas and 6-6 Runkel are the men in the paint and need to manage the rebounding and inside scoring opportunities.
The junior duo of Arjun Chandar and Christophe Kunesh round out the third-year class. The pair has demonstrated extreme discipline and commitment in their time with the team. Together, all six have been instrumental in Caltech's rise to competitiveness and have started a combined 43 games in their two years in Pasadena. The only other sophomore on the squad is Brian Okoro, a 6-0 guard who possesses a quick first step with strength that will make the Beavers even more dynamic.
Two highly regarded recruits will see significant minutes as freshmen. Andrew Hogue, a 6-5 wing/forward from Arroyo Grande, Calif. is a capable three-point shooter, playmaker, and post player who was named PAC 7 Defensive Player of the Year after leading his team to the CIF post season tournament.
Bryan Joel, a 5-11 point guard from Bethesda, Maryland, possesses a high basketball IQ along with much needed playmaking and scoring abilities. Joel averaged 9.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.3 apg, and 1.1 spg as a senior at Walt Whitman High School.
Assistant coaches Jon-Michael Sanchez, Jamayne Potts, and Dennis McCreary all return for another year on the Beavers' coaching staff.
Caltech is scheduled to play 13 home and 12 road games this season, including a December trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Beavers open at Vanguard University on November 19 and their first home game is November 22 against Pacifica College.