Augustana basketball players were greeted with a simple, yet straightforward message when they arrived at the Carver PE Center for their first practice of the new year Monday afternoon.
Coach Grey Giovanine had written a quote attributed to Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau across a chalkboard in the Vikings' locker room, encouraging his team to buy into the notion that "championships are won with great defense and rebounding and by valuing and sharing the ball."
As it prepares to open College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin play Wednesday at Millikin, those ideals will guide Augustana, off to a 10-1 start and ranked third in the country in the most recent D3hoops.com poll.
"We've done a good job so far with those objectives that Tom Thibodeau talks about, but we need to work to get better in all of those areas each and every day," Giovanine said.
"It's the start of a new season. The opponents are a little more familiar, everyone will have us scouted a little better and everything becomes a little harder now because of that."
Augustana looks to add to its collection of four CCIW championships over the past six seasons, understanding that traditionally nothing comes easily in the conference.
"We can't be satisfied with where we are at," third-year starting point guard Brian DeSimone said. "We have a lot of experience and we understand that the CCIW is always a challenge and you have to bring your best every night if you hope to be successful."
The Vikings' best has been a collective effort.
Six different players have led Augustana in scoring this season, and seven Vikings have led the team in rebounding through 11 games.
The Vikings lead the CCIW in scoring defense, surrendering an average of 59.3 points per game, and own a league-best rebound margin of 13.2 heading into the start of the conference season.
"I think we're ready for the challenge," said senior Bryant Voiles, who leads Augustana with averages of 18.3 points and 7.4 rebounds. "The conference season is a long battle, and you can't get ahead of yourself, but we're prepared. We're not taking anything for granted."
Giovanine believes Augustana's nonconference schedule, which includes road wins at St. Ambrose and Wisconsin-Oshkosh, a win at home over ranked Wisconsin-Stevens Point and a three-point loss at perennial power Washington University, has prepared his team well.
"We've seen a good number of different styles and systems, we've gone on the road and played good teams in hostile environments and my sense is those experiences will serve us well," Giovanine said.
Augustana is 3-1 in true road games this season, and DeSimone said those games in particular have helped prepare the Vikings for CCIW play.
"Going on the road has tested us, and I think we've learned from each of those games," DeSimone said. "To win a conference title, you have to be able to go out and win away from home, and we're prepared to do that."
The Vikings, who play three of their first four and four of their last five CCIW games on the road, enter league play undergoing an adjustment to their rotation.
Luke Scarlata, the team's third-leading scorer and rebounder and a starter in the Vikings' first 10 games of the season, left the team last week for personal reasons.
Junior Brandon Kunz, who had been splitting time with Scarlata, and sophomore Kevin Schlitter, will soak up the majority of the 19.6 minutes per game that Scarlata was averaging.
Get breaking news sent instantly to your inbox
"Brandon had been finishing games for us and Kevin had been dominating at the JV level. Our focus now is on moving forward and I think we have a group that is committed to doing that," Giovanine said.
Voiles said that approach has helped the Vikings succeed at a high level over time.
"One of the mottos of this program has always been for players to be ready to step in when needed," the senior co-captain said. "It's no different than if someone had been injured. The next guy has to step up and compete, and I'm confident that will happen again."
Change of plans
Basketball teams at Augustana College are adjusting to a change in the way the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin schedules its weekday games.
Throughout most of the 2012 league season, men's and women's teams have flipped the night of the week when their conference games will be played, with the men playing on Tuesday nights and women's teams playing on Wednesdays for the first time.
"It does give us one less day to prepare for the Tuesday opponent and most weeks it will move our off day to Wednesday, but we're still talking through how we will handle that from one week to the next,'' Augustana men's coach Grey Giovanine said. "The other teams are in the same situation, so it evens out, but it is a change for us.''
Vikings women's coach Bobbi Endress said the Augustana women will now have every Sunday as their weekly off day.
"There will be no practice, no class that day, so that will be nice for them,'' Endress said. "I don't know that it will impact us one way or another other than changing the day off we have each week.''
The situation is only temporary. Giovanine said he expects CCIW games for both men's and women's teams to be played on a Wednesday, Saturday schedule beginning in 2013.