PASADENA (Nov. 8, 2019) – One year removed from its winningest season in nearly 65 years, the Caltech men's basketball team will have the opportunity to raise the bar to a new level in 2019-20, doubling its roster size while doubling down on high-character, like-minded scholar-athletes who have a knack for doing whatever is required of them to have the results reflect their level of play.
"In our preseason meeting, we talked about what it means to be a Caltech basketball player," Eslinger said. "One of the guys mentioned being a Swiss army knife, which I think is a good metaphor. You need to be adaptable, versatile, sharp physically and mentally as well as being a quick learner. We also have more class balance than we've ever had and more positions than we've ever had, which makes practices very competitive."
The Beavers are returning a deep group of upperclassmen, all of which have seen heavy minutes against top-level competition over the previous two seasons. Program assist leader Alec Andrews (Folsom, Calif. / Folsom) will be chief among them. Already the steadiest point guard Caltech has ever seen (8.9 PPG, 5.5 APG, 2.0 SPG), the senior will look to get as many of his teammates involved as he can, and his options have never been stronger. Junior sharpshooter Marcus Gee (Santa Monica, Calif. / Santa Monica) also returns, coming off a season where he earned Second Team All-SCIAC honors as the team's leading scorer, as does lengthy, do-it-all guard Spencer Schneider (Houston, Texas / Clearbrook). With the Beavers adding plenty of size in the offseason, the team might be less dependent on Schneider (11.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG) as an option down low, allowing him to create from all ends of the floor. Gee, meanwhile has been praised for his work ethic and basketball IQ, which has allowed him to grow his game over his first two seasons with the team. In addition to being one of the top deep-ball shooters to ever come through the program, Gee also finished his sophomore season among the SCIAC steals leaders (1.6 SPG).
Caltech is also set to return SCIAC Newcomer of the Year Noah Barnes (Springfield, Va. / Jefferson). A physical, steady presence at the guard spot, the sophomore has received acclaim for his work ethic and all-around ability, putting up strong scoring numbers while also being tasked with having to guard some of the SCIAC's top offensive players as a rookie.
With key pieces from a season ago expected to remain entrenched in their roles, the Beavers will look to justify last year's improved metrics. Caltech finished the 2018-19 season among the top-40 teams in Division III in scoring defense, assist to turnover ratio, three-pointers made per game, free throw percentage, and fewest turnovers per game. One game saw the team commit a microscopic four turnovers – a program record – against SCIAC champion Pomona-Pitzer Colleges. This year, the Beavers will set out to become a more dynamic, multi-dimensional team while maintaining the degree of efficiency that made them such a tough out last year.
"We're sticking to what we've been doing," Eslinger said. "But this year's team will be more adaptable. We expect to be a faster, more physical team without losing our efficiency. Having the extra experience, size and athleticism will help, but this allows us to play a more full-court game and mesh all the things we've been doing the last four years. We'll be able to attack from all angles, play with passion and compete just as we always have. If all of this adds up to being an exciting team, that's great."
Two more returners who figure to serve in an immediate capacity are seniors Aaron Ayres (Tucson, Ariz. / Catalina Foothills) and Ross Carter (Sudbury, Mass. / The Rivers School). Ayres is considered to be one of the most improved players on the team since his freshman year and successfully rebounded from a knee injury sustained prior to his second year with a healthy junior year. He, along with Carter, will be contributors in the frontcourt. Carter has also improved significantly since coming to campus, having developed an outside game to go along with his heavy inside presence. Stephen Hei (Newcastle, Wash. / Liberty) and Riley O'Neil (Santa Rosa, Calif. / Montgomery) are two more players who are looking to take a step forward as sophomores. Hei, who missed a chunk of his rookie season with mono, proved to be the best three-pointer shooter on floor in certain spots (.420 3FG%) while flashing defensive upside on the other end. O'Neil, meanwhile has become a more vocal player and improved his perimeter skills over the offseason. Like Carter, he offers a unique skill set at his size and has been an asset for the team at practice. Another sophomore, Ethan Eason (Mercer Island, Wash. / Mercer Island) will be making his debut with the team after sitting out his freshman season rehabbing from a high school injury.
Several players from the 2017-18 team will also be returning and figure to take on a variety of roles throughout the year. Senior guard Bret Johnson (Carlsbad, Calif. / Santa Fe Christian) and junior Michael Li (Bryn Mawr, Pa. / Radnor) bring a tough, grinding style to the guard spots, with Li possessing an ability to spell Andrews at point guard if needed and Johnson an ability to shoot the long ball. Junior forward Calvin Huh (Fort Lee, N.J. / Bergen Tech) is also back in the orange and white, having worked hard to improve his conditioning and offensive skills while maintaining a powerful presence in the paint.
"We're looking at all of our returners to make contributions in some form or fashion," Eslinger said. "Whether it's playing heavy minutes or getting the call to do one specific thing and fulfill certain roles or being the absolute best practice player one can be, it's what we want for everybody. It's about 'we.' It's always been about 'we' and what we do as a program. Within that, there is a 'me,' but the 'me's' have to take care of themselves and operate closely together with the 'we.' It's all intertwined."
How the incoming crop of freshmen mesh with the established, core group of players at the forefront of last year's campaign will be something to watch. The program is bringing in 6-foot-8 freshman Pavlos Stavrinides (Nicosia, Cyprus / The English School of Nicosia), a true big man who won a championship with the Cyprus national team and led his high school team in scoring and rebounding. His ability to mix it up on all ends of the floor is exactly what Eslinger and his staff look for in Caltech players, and his blend of size, physicality, and finesse have him positioned to cause matchup problems for multiple teams right out of the gate.
"Pavlos is a very skilled player with more prior basketball experience than we've ever had," Eslinger said. "He brings an advanced IQ for the game and worldview that is pretty much unmatched with where he grew up and his experience playing internationally. He also served in the army for 14 months. We're excited to have him, he's excited to be here and we expect him to make a great impact on the program."
Stavrinides is just one player of a six-man freshman class, however, all of which will have the opportunity to show they can be immediate contributors. Jack Pierson (Slayton, Minn. / Murray County Central) has already shown himself to be one of the hardest workers of the class and brings with him an exciting athletic profile as a multi-sport high school athlete. Kyle McGraw (Los Altos Hills, Calif. / The Nueva School), meanwhile, brings attention to detail defensively while being able to play a variety of roles per the situation. Chase Pagon (Solana Beach, Calif. / Santa Fe Christian) is a high-motor player that also has strong defensive fundamentals and a slashing offensive style, and Richard Wang (San Jose, Calif. / The Harker School) is arguably the best shooter of the group, equipped with a quick release that has allowed him to fit into the Caltech system rather quickly. Ben Juarez (El Dorado Hills, Calif. / Oak Ridge) is the largest player of the freshman group not named Stavrinides. He carries with him exceptional length, athleticism and an ability to listen to feedback and immediately apply it to his game.
Junior Gokul Srinivasaragavan (San Ramon, Calif. / Dougherty Valley), a combo guard who played an integral role in last year's historic season, is likely to miss the entire season due to a knee injury sustained over the summer. In spite of this, the third-year player has managed to be a contributor to the team off the floor.
"Gokul is still one of the most involved guys at practice with the way he communicates and engages with the team," Eslinger said. "He is a great example of how one can still improve even if he's not practicing."
Assistant Coach James Covell will return to the Beavers' staff for a second year and will be joined by fellow La Canada-native Neel Sitaramya and Steve Ledesma, who comes to the Beavers after serving as a coaching associate for the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2018-19 season. All three were on hand for the Beavers' successful exhibition win against La Sierra University during the first week of November. Caltech came out on top 80-71, marking the first time the program has defeated an NAIA program with scholarships.
Eslinger and the Beavers will open the 2019-20 regular season on Sunday, Nov. 10 when they host Yeshiva University for a 2 p.m. clash.