In his 45 seasons witnessing Augustana men’s basketball, Terry Prendergast ’75 rates the 2014-15 team at the top.
“To go through a season and conference tournament with only two losses is amazing,” Prendergast said. “I believe you always had the feel with this year’s team they’d find a way to win, which many times in the past we didn’t have that feel, even when we were doing well. Sometimes, in the past, it has seemed like we were surprised to win. This year’s team expects to win and has seemed to give a great effort in doing so. So, in my opinion, this year’s team is the greatest I’ve seen.”
Coach Tom Billeter’s crew certainly presents a convincing case as the “best ever” in the program’s 93-year history. Consider the evidence:
- Most wins in a season, 31.
- Won the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) tournament for the first time since joining the league in 2008.
- Hosted the Central Region Tournament for the first time.
- Won a share of the NSIC regular season championship. It’s the first league title since the 1988-89 Vikings captured the North Central Conference (NCC) crown.
- Was ranked second in the National Basketball Coaches Association (NBCA) Top 25 Poll; it’s the highest ranking in program history.
- Set a school and conference record with 20 wins in league play.
- The 19-game win streak is unprecedented.
- Junior Daniel Jansen was voted NSIC co-player of the year and earned a place on the league’s all-tournament team. Junior Casey Schilling earned the league’s defensive player of the year award and was the conference tournament’s most valuable player. NSIC freshman of the year accolades went to Jordan Spencer. Jansen, Schilling and junior Alex Richter were All-NSIC first team choices. Spencer made the second team. Richter was also selected to the all-tournament team.
Augustana didn’t enter the season unnoticed. Media members and league coaches saw the Vikings making a run in post-season play. Then Matthew Brazendale and Ethan Guske suffered season-ending injuries early in the campaign. Both guards were counted on as key contributors.
“At the beginning of the season we questioned the guys’ toughness; how would they react to adversity,” said assistant coach Collin Authier.
A 19-game win string put any concerns to rest. Even with opponents ramping up their games when playing the streaking Vikings, Billeter’s crew responded week after week through a grueling 22-game conference schedule.
“The goal was to get better with each practice and each game in preparation for March,” Authier said. “I spent a lot of time with each of the kids emphasizing the big picture. Each game was a step in that process. It has been a long time since we were able to hang a banner.”
Augustana was expected to make some noise in 2013-14. Jansen, Schilling, Alex Richter, and Zach Huisken were coming off productive seasons. Before the first tipoff, Richter and Huisken were out for the season.
The return of Richter and Huisken, the emergence of Spencer, and Adam Beyer’s steady play as a true freshman the previous season gave Billeter the arsenal he needed for a resurgent 2014-15 campaign.
“Sitting out a year gave Alex an opportunity to step back and learn,” said Authier. “He had to work hard to get back in shape and he has become a quiet but mature leader for this team. Zach cares so much for the other guys and the program. He really wants to do well and is learning how to manage being a college player.”
Spencer took over at point guard after the injuries to Guske and Brazendale. He came to Augustana in the spring of 2014 from England, where he played on the under-20 Great Britain National Team and was rated among the best young players in the nation.
As for Jansen and Schilling, Authier said they are two of the toughest competitors he has ever coached.
“These guys have a lot of trust in each other,” Authier said. “Their buy-in level is really high. I really believe this has been God’s team. He has touched this team in some magical ways.”
During the season Billeter registered his 200th win as the Vikings’ head coach and passed 300 for his career.
“I’m just so happy for our guys, but also our fans and our school,” Billeter told Argus Leader sports writer Matt Zimmer after the conference tournament title run. “For a smaller school like us to experience something like this and have a year like we’ve had is really special.”
Augustana’s magical season accompanied a risk taken by the College’s administration to move conference home games from the Elmen Center to the Sioux Falls Arena. The Elmen Center has been Augustana’s on-campus home since 1989, with the exception of one season when NCC games were played at the Arena.
Moving to the Arena sparked skepticism, especially from some of the more golden of Vikings fans.
“We had a strong feeling it was the right move to make,” said Jon Eng, director of athletic development. “The Arena people had talked to us about what they would do to make it a welcoming environment. An open house in the fall gave fans an opportunity to see the court bearing Augustana’s logo and colors and to also sit in the chair back seat where they would watch the women’s and men’s teams in action.
“Some were against the move at first, but now they’re happy we’re out there. And by selling signage and finding sponsors for the suites, we’re raising revenue for the athletic department.”
Eng said one goal of the move to the spacious Arena was to entice more fans to the games. He said attendance this year surpassed the 2013-14 season by about 7,000. Mission accomplished.
Chair back seats, two video boards, more parking, and expanded rest room and concession facilities are some of the advantages supporting the Arena move. “There is just more room, period,” Eng said.
Authier said the move is a positive for recruiting.
“It’s really nice when a kid experiences the stage, environment, and atmosphere the Arena provides. It’s just a great place for the men’s and women’s teams to play. The administration did a great job of securing the site and the Arena staff did a great job accommodating us.”
The historic 2014-15 season ended with a loss in the semifinals of the Central Region tournament. The Vikings’ final record was 31-3.