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PSAC pegged as one of Division II’s toughest conferences

Justin Kraus, Sports Editor

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With exhibition games in the books, The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference men’s basketball teams will starts non-conference play this weekend, and will start conference play next week.

“There are some quality coaches, there is stability in a lot of places,” Indiana (Pa.) head coach Joe Lombardi said. “Year-to-year, talent may fluctuate, but they will always be well-coached. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons the PSAC is one of the strongest conferences in the country year in and year out.”

Lombardi along with the other PSAC coaches expect the conference to be even more competitive than it was last year.

“Overall, there are going to be a lot of improved teams in the west,” Lombardi said. “One thing I can guarantee is that they will make improvement from one year to the next.”

Leading the way for the PSAC-West division will be the Indiana (Pa.) Crimson Hawks, who received eight of the nine first-place votes in the PSAC-West preseason poll. IUP will be following up a stellar 2016-17 campaign, where the team went 21-2 in conference play and 28-4 overall. Indiana (Pa.) lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year to the eventual national runner-up, Fairmont State. IUP is also ranked no. 6 in the Division II basketball national preseason rankings.

IUP will be returning four starters, including the 2016 PSAC-West player of the year, junior forward Jacobo Diaz.

“There’s general hopes and there are specific hopes [for us],” Lombardi said. “Specific hopes are to make the NCAA tournament, the general goals we try to keep small to a day-by-day focus. We hope that will lead to success in the future.”

Placing second in the PSAC-West preseason poll is the Gannon golden knights, who finished second in the division last year with a 15-7 record in conference. Gannon’s season came to an end last year in the PSAC playoff semifinals, falling to Kutztown 91-85 in overtime.

Gannon returns a full cupboard from last year with three of their top four scorers coming back, including senior guard Zay Jackson, who averaged 17.1 points per year, and made the third-most triple pointers in the PSAC last year.

Reilly himself will have something to look forward to, as he is nine wins shy of 450 on his career.

“Gannon has some very good core players coming back,” Lombardi said.

After finishing the regular season 14-14 and 11-11 in conference play last year, the Mercyhurst Lakers fell in the PSAC quarterfinals to the aforementioned crimson hawks. Mercyhurst was selected third in the PSAC-West preseason poll, mostly thanks to returning the bulk of a team that held opponents to 68.8 points per game, namely senior big man Lorenzo Collier, who averaged 13.2 point per game.

Finishing the top half of the PSAC-West preseason poll in fourth place is Slippery Rock. Slippery Rock returns four overall players and three starters, while adding seven transfers that can play immediately. SRU led the PSAC in defense last year, holding opposing teams to 65 points per game. Senior center Christal Malalu is the best two-way returner for the Rock, having averaged 7.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last year.

“Slippery Rock added a lot of new talent, and they had a pretty good showing at Pitt,” Lombardi said. “That bodes well for them moving forward.”

“Our goal every year is to reach the NCAA tournament, and we’re going to bring that attitude to practice” Slippery Rock head coach Kevin Reynolds said.

California (Pa.) is coming off of a disappointing 10-18 2016-17 campaign, and was picked fifth in the PSAC-West coaches poll. Cal will be looking to build upon their 9.1 three-pointers per game they sank last year.

“The surprise team [in the PSAC west] might be California (Pa.),” Lombardi said. “They were probably the most improved team over the course of the season last year, so I expect them to be even more improved this year.”

After a stellar 19-11 overall and 13-9 conference (third-place in PSAC-West) record last year which ended in a PSAC tournament quarterfinals loss, the Univeristy of Pittsburgh-Johnstown mountain cats are expected to have a drop off this season. UPJ was selected sixth in the PSAC-West coaches poll, despite returning all-PSAC senior guard Dale Clancy.

Seton Hill, Edinboro, and Clarion were picked seventh, eighth and ninth, respectively to round out the PSAC-West.

Expected to lead the PSAC-East this year will be the no. 8 nationally preseason ranked Shippensburg raiders. Shippesburg won their second ever PSAC title last year, and fell in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Raiders return four starters, and the NCAA Atlantic region coach of the year, Chris Fite.

Shippensburg received all but one PSAC-East preseason poll number one vote, the other went to East Stroudsburg, who was ranked third. Kutztown was ranked second in the preseason after losing in the PSAC championship game last year. West Chester, Lock Haven and Mansfield were picked fourth, fifth and sixth respectively in the middle of the pack. Bloomsburg, Millersville and Cheyney rounded out the PSAC-East preseason rankings.

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PSAC pegged as one of Division II’s toughest conferences