Last season, Lewis-Clark State men’s basketball coach Austin Johnson guided the Warriors to their first NAIA Final Four appearance (where L-C lost in a national semifinal) and upset an NCAA Division I opponent (Idaho).
The Warriors will get a peek Monday at what Johnson plans for an encore when they welcome nonleague foe Yellowstone Christian College (1 p.m., Activity Center) to open Johnson’s second season at the helm.
Graduating five of its top six scorers, L-C returns just three players who played a significant role last year. Those are junior point guard Damek Mitchell, junior post Trystan Bradley and senior sharpshooter Josiah Westbrook.
Mitchell averaged 11.2 points per game and ranked fifth in the NAIA in assists (193), seeming to enjoy a special rapport with Bradley.
“(Mitchell’s) kind of an extension of us coaches on the floor,” Johnson said. “But just like Trystan and Josiah, he’s going from a position where, as good as he was last year, he’s going to have to be (even) better this year because he doesn’t have Derrick White or Cory Dollarhide alongside with him. ... He’s gotta take another step up in handling the pressure night in and night out.”
Bradley, who stands 6-foot-8, raised his game to another level late last season. The Lewiston alum averaged 10.73 points during the Warriors’ final 11 games and scored 15 in L-C’s 80-76 win against LSU Alexandria in the Elite Eight.
“I’d say the biggest piece for him is just the mental confidence of not hesitating when he has a chance to get his shot off,” Johnson said of Bradley, who averaged 7.8 points last season. “I think anyone who saw him from last year to this year, that confident streak he had late last season going into the national tournament has definitely carried over.”
Johnson runs a defense called the Pack Line, where — unless their man has the ball — L-C’s defenders must stay within an invisible line that runs several feet inside the 3-point arc, to clog up the lane.
L-C’s opponents struggled to gain high-percentage shots against the Pack Line, shooting 41 percent last year (compared to 44 percent the year before).
Johnson said he learned the system in two ways: From watching videos put out by the defense’s progenitor, former Washington State and Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, and from working under Western Illinois coach Jim Molinari for two seasons as a graduate assistant.
“(Molinari) is also very close with Dick Bennett,” Johnson said.
WSU ran the Pack Line for six seasons in the 2000s under Dick Bennett and then his son, Tony Bennett — the latter of whom used it to win the NCAA Division I national title last season at Virginia.
VISITING THE KENNEL
The Warriors will visit Gonzaga for an exhibition game Nov. 1. The last time these teams met, in 2012, L-C lost 104-57.
This will mark L-C’s last season in the Frontier Conference. League coaches picked the Warriors to finish third in the FC in the preseason poll and named Mitchell to the preseason all-conference team.
Click on the link for a video from Tuesday's media day.
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