WALLA WALLA - The Walla Walla University men's basketball team hopes to build on last year's strong national tournament finish, where the Wolves took third place in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics' national tournament in Denver.
Repeating that success includes ramping up the Wolves' schedule, which is stacked with 30 games and includes NCAA Division II schools, said third-year head coach Gerry Larson.
The Wolves open their season Friday at the Eastern Oregon University tournament in La Grande. They play the College of Idaho Friday and Eastern Oregon Saturday night.
From there, the Wolves host Southern Oregon and Eastern Oregon before traveling to Central Washington University and Western Washington University, Northwest University and then playing at the Lewis-Clark State Tournament.
"Our early season is stacked with really difficult games," Larson said. "Rather than looking at individual games and saying they're ‘must win,' what we do is really focus on our process to prepare and hopefully generate the correct process to execute well, so that later in the season, in our other games, we'll be more successful on the scoreboard."
Jim Hill joins Larson on the sidelines as associate head coach. Hill coached at WWU for three years before the school joined the NAIA, and he took the Wolves to the National Christian College Athletic Association Championships twice. He had a graduate assistantship at Gonzaga and coached at Wenatchee Valley Community College for two years before returning to the area for a job at Wa-Hi. He played for - and was an assistant coach - at Whitman before his first stint at WWU.
"I really value the impact he's had on our program," Larson said of Hill. "It'll help us. We have a really strong staff and we're ready to move forward. "
Hill also brings recruiting contacts from his time at Gonzaga and Wenatchee, Larson said.
The Wolves finished 9-16 last season. It was their first year being eligible for the tourney.
"If we can get another trip to Denver and another shot at winning that, that's one of our goals," Larson said. "But otherwise, our goals involve being a great representation of our university and community and to the public watching us, and the people who visit us or we go play. We want to put our best foot forward."
This year's Wolves team lost solid team leadership to graduation, Larson said.
Sophomore Tristan Greenridge, the No. 5 scorer on last year's team, will likely be the Wolves' leading scorer this season, Larson said. Greenridge, a 6-3 guard, averaged 8.5 points per game last season.
All of the scorers ahead of him have graduated or left the team, Larson said.
"He was really in a position as a freshman to take a backseat to the other players on the roster," he said of Greenridge's performance last year. "He's pretty much our top returning guy athletically and he's definitely our leader on the court. And he's ready to go and prepared to make a huge impact for us this year."
There are three seniors on the team.
Eran Wilson is returning after a couple of years away from basketball. Wilson, a 6-foot 5-inch center, has two years of eligibility remaining, but is graduating at the end of this year.
Wilson was recently sworn into the Air Force. He'll be entering as an officer with an interest in aviation.
Marc Gupilan, a 6-1 guard, keeps in shape during the offseason training with a professional boxer, who's also a family friend, Larson said.
Gupilan transferred to Walla Walla from the University of Great Falls in Montana two seasons ago. The 2009-10 season was his first with the team. This is his final year of eligibility.
The last senior on the team is Josh Henderson, playing his second year with the Wolves. He played with the Wolves during the 2008-09 season, but was redshirted with an injury last season.
Gupilan and Henderson both have junior college experience.
"We're going to need that (experience) because we're pretty small," Larson said. "We don't get much bigger than 6-5 and we've got a really aggressive schedule this year. We need some of that extra leadership because our season will be difficult at times."
Larson is pleased with the juniors and sophomores.
"We lost a lot of leadership last year, so the leadership this year is really starting to come together," he said.
Jordan Stimmel, a 5-10 point guard, is one of the team captains. Joining Stimmel are fellow juniors Terrance Talton (6-3, forward), Marcus Johnson (6-6, center), Taylor Lewis (6-1, guard), Bryce Dohetry (6-3, center) and Tom Creasy (6-3, forward).
"We just have good kids," Larson said.
Several of the juniors also have junior college experience, including Dohetry and Creasy. All six of them have played at other colleges or universities.
"We have an infusion of older JC kids coming in who are a little more experienced and prepared to lead in that respect," Larson said.
Filling out the team are sophomore guard Teddy Alemu (5-11), freshman point guard Jason Abdul-Karim (5-10) and sophomore center Andrew Bailey (6-4). Three freshman will be redshirting the season - Logan Lee (6-2), Terrell Cross (5-10) and Justin Hansen (6-2).
The Wolves are on the road this weekend and open at home Nov. 13 against Southern Oregon University.