Boys in blue starting anew

DES MOINES – The slate has been wiped. The start will be fresh.

New Drake men’s basketball coach Ray Giacoletti doesn’t care what his players did in the past. He is only concerned with what they will do moving forward.

“The staff didn’t watch tape from last year. The guys are getting a clean slate and a fresh start,” said Giacoletti, who begins his first year in Des Moines after spending the previous six seasons as an assistant at Gonzaga. “The things you can control are the things we are trying to focus on each and every day. We need to be the best we can be on that day. We are going to make the best of what we have. There are a lot of things in basketball you can control, and that is what we are focusing on.”

What Giacoletti can’t control is a roster that lost the two top leading scorers in Ben Simons and Chris Hines and leading rebounder Jordan Clarke to graduation and Micah Mason and Joey King to transfer.

That doesn’t faze the veteran coach. Giacoletti only wants to look forward not back.

“I didn’t coach those guys. I didn’t have the feeling of who left and who is not here. I really don’t know what it was like to be with them,” said Giacoletti of the departures. “We have what we have and if we needed something extra there is nothing we can do about it anyway.”

What Giacoletti and his coaching staff have are two returning starters in fifth year senior Seth Van Deest and senior Richard Carter as well as key returners Gary Ricks Jr. and Aaron Hawley. Junior college transfers Trevor Berkeley and Chris Caird should also provide plenty of depth to a program that finished 15-17 overall and 7-11 in Missouri Valley Conference play a year ago.

“We are not putting any win totals on the season,” said Van Deest, who is team’s leading returning scorer at 9.5 points per game. “We want to win the day. Do whatever you can do on that day to get better.”

The 6-foot-11 Van Deest has been sidelined a bit early with a knee injury. He is practicing but only for 45 minutes per day. It will be a slow process, but that should allow the senior from Bettendorf to be healthy at the most important time of the season and also can help build depth in the post with young guys like 6-foot-10 Robert Puleikis and 6-foot-11 Jacob Jensen.

“We are going to bring him along slowly so he can be the best he can be at the meat of the season,” Giacoletti said of Van Deest. “We need to be smart with him so he can have the best senior year possible. He will never be fully back. It’s just not in the cards for him to go through the year pain free.”

Carter is expected to be the starting point guard after scoring 9.2 points per game last year. He also dished out a team-high 110 assists.

The senior from Detroit, Mich., likes the “clean slate” motto that Giacoletti has brought in. It has really intensified practices.

“I love that. It brings the competitiveness back to the court,” Carter said. “If he watched film from last year he would say right away who is going to be the starting point guard. That means other guys may think they are already out of it. Now, we clash every day at practice trying to show the coaches that we belong on the court.”

Giacoletti expects Drake’s run back to the top of the MVC to be a process. And he knows it won’t happen overnight.

That is why this year’s Bulldogs are focusing on the day and practice at hand.

“We need to find a way to be the best we can be and the only way to do that is to win the day at hand,” he said. “We need to be more consistent to be better. If that takes place, the end results will be there. Winning is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. Gonzaga has been playing basketball over 100 years and the last 15 years is what rings prevalent.”

Besides Van Deest and Carter, the Bulldogs should get positive contributions from Ricks Jr. and Hawley as well as Berkeley and Caird. Giacoletti also expects returners Karl Madison, Jordan Daniels and Daddy Ugbede and freshmen Blake Danielak and Jensen to secure some kind of roles on this year’s squad.

Caird averaged 18 points and six rebounds while shooting 41 percent from 3-point range last year for Marshalltown Community College. Minor injuries have slowed Caird down a bit this preseason, but Giacoletti expects Caird to play significant minutes when he returns to the court full time.

“He has tendinitis in his good knee. For whatever reason, it started half way through the summer and it’s continued to get worse. It’s noticeable on the court,” Giacoletti said. “He can shoot the basketball, and he has the experience that we need. So we need him to play. There is a role for him on this team. I still think he was a steal for this program, but we just have to get him healthy.”

Caird is adamant that he will be fine injury-wise and likes what he has seen from the team so far. The Bulldogs are still trying to figure out individual roles, but the former MCC Tiger from England sees himself playing the 3 or 4 on this Drake roster.

“Everyone has bought into what the coaches want to do. The mentality is defense and rebounding,” said Caird, who played against Ricks Jr. when he was at Indian Hills. “We will play a lot like we did at MCC in that we will look to get stops on defense and then push the ball to the other end. If I get open looks, I will definitely shoot it.”

Giacoletti sees the Missouri Valley Conference as a two-tier league. The top tier features the favorites in Wichita State, Northern Iowa and Indiana State and the second-tier is the rest of the league.

“I think those top three teams are out in front of everyone else by quite a bit to start the year,” Giacoletti said. “After that, everyone else is in the other pack.”

The Bulldogs begin the season on Nov. 9 on the road at the University of Illinois-Chicago. The home opener is Nov. 12 against Iowa Wesleyan and the Bulldogs will face Iowa in the Big Four Classic at Wells Fargo Arena on Dec. 7.

“It’s a great opportunity. It’s great for the city of Des Moines and it’s great for basketball in the state of Iowa,” Giacoletti said of the Big Four Classic. “I don’t see a downside, and I also get why Iowa and Iowa State don’t want to come to the Knapp Center. It’s just the way it is. The opportunity now is to go the neutral floor and try to be successful there. We can’t worry about things we can’t control at this point.”

The conference slate kicks off Jan. 1 at home against Evansville. The Bulldogs travel to Northern Iowa on Jan. 11 and host the Panthers on Feb. 18.