‘Don’t count us out’: Men’s Basketball’s fresh start
After earning a 1-15 record in the 2022-23 season, many fans were left disappointed. Following the spring departure of former head coach Kip Ioane (‘01), Bearcat Men’s Basketball has undergone a complete coaching overhaul and gained several new recruits. All the changes that come with new leadership have provided players with a breath of fresh air, but are these changes enough to turn the tides for Men’s Basketball?
Mike Lenahan has joined Willamette University as the new Men’s Basketball head coach. Lenahan has lengthy experience in both NCAA Division I and NCAA Division III, where he coached at University of California-Berkeley and University of California-Irvine, helping to build both teams up to a place in the NCAA tournament. In terms of Division III, Lenahan has also coached at University of Redlands and Bard College, his most recent school. At Bard, Lenahan inherited a team that had previously gone 0-24. In his two years as coach, he earned a record of 15-35.
Along with an entirely new four-man coaching staff, Men’s Basketball has also received three transfer students and five first-years, eight new players in total. “They have been key additions right away,” explained Jack Boydell (BA ‘23, MBA ‘24) who is entering his fifth year in the program and led the squad by far in points last season. These large additions to the team paired with new plays have created an excitement among the team that was not there in previous years. “I think there’s more energy because of all those factors of newness com[ing] in,” explained Boydell. “Everyone’s just excited to get going.” This new excitement and sense of community may help contribute to on-the-court results.
In the past, Willamette Men’s Basketball has excelled on offense, but struggled on the defensive front. In response, Lenahan is placing a heavy focus on building up a formidable defense. This includes developing an aggressive man-to-man defense and reducing opportunities for uncontested shots on the rim. “We’re going to run, we’re going to press, we’re going to get after teams,” said Lenahan. “Get one percent better each day.” The men are being taught to make plays, read and react, while also being given the freedom to make their own calls when needed in order to keep up the speed that has been one of Men’s Basketball’s strengths in recent years.
Lenahan is focusing not just on the strategy and team dynamics, but also the mental aspect of basketball. Former coach Kip Ioane (‘01) established Teams of Men, a program aiming to develop positive masculinity within male sports teams. Although the program will not continue at Willamette, Men’s Basketball is still striving to be positive contributors to the campus and wider Salem community. “We take that stuff very seriously,” explained Boydell. “We want to uphold the same values the program taught.” AJ Tennathur (‘27), a first-year on the team, explained the team dynamic: “I know that the coaching staff and the team really cares about us as people.”
The team has already volunteered with Church at the Park, an organization that works with individuals facing houselessness in Salem, and held free basketball clinics at The Boys & Girls Club, where the players use basketball skills such as put ups, speed and positive body language to teach leadership traits. “I really appreciate all the teammates and coaches for allowing that environment to happen,” said Boydell.
Lenahan understands that past year’s records may cause some to overlook the Bearcats this upcoming season. However, with the inclusion of these new changes the team is confident that they will defy expectations. “I have no doubt that we’re gonna be successful,” claimed Tennathur (‘27).
The 2023-2024 coaches poll places the Bearcats at dead last in the upcoming season. In fact, the voting tallies show that not a single coach selected Willamette for any placement other than 9th. Meanwhile, in practice under Lenahan, the men are running a drill called “Win the Conference.” “We’re hoping to surprise some people,” Lenahan said.