Before a recent practice, Augustana College basketball coach Grey Giovanine showed his team a photo of the Grand Canyon.
The Vikings don’t play anywhere near the geologic wonder during the regular season — Oshkosh, Wis., and St. Louis is about as glamorous as it gets this year — but Giovanine has his reasons for the impromptu photo session.
He wanted his players to understand that the finished product wasn’t built in a day, that it was the result of daily work by nature over an extended period of time.
With four starters returning from a 27-4 team that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division III tournament a year ago, Giovanine wants the Vikings — ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation in preseason polls — to embrace similar ideals.
“We can’t win the conference title or get back to the NCAA tourney today. The rankings right now, they mean nothing,” said senior co-captain Troy Rorer, a guard from Bettendorf. “It’s all about what we do from one day to the next.”
As senior guard Brian DeSimone says, it’s all about mastering “the daily grind.”
“We have sort of adopted that as our motto this year, and there is a lot to it. This is a grind from now until March, and we’ll get out of it what we put into it on a day-to-day basis,” DeSimone said.
Augustana faces its first test of the season Thursday, playing an exhibition at Division I Valparaiso 12 days before opening the regular season at home against Aurora.
This year’s team will be similar to those that have led the Vikings to College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin championships in five of the past nine seasons.
Defense, rebounding and running remain at the core of Augustana’s beliefs.
The Vikings build around returning all-conference choices Bryant Voiles, a 6-foot-9 forward who averaged 12.4 points and 5.8 rebounds a year ago, and DeSimone, a 6-1 guard who averaged 9.5 points last season.
Chris Anderson, a 6-4 wing from West Carroll, and George Dexter, a 6-7 forward from Bettendorf, also return starting experience.
“Being in so many close games, playing in so many important games, those things all help us, but so do the way we challenge each other in practice every day,” Voiles said. “This team will have to create its own identity and opportunities, and we understand that. It’s part of the challenge.”
The Vikings enter the season with some questions.
Augustana must replace two-time all-CCIW pick Kyle Nelson, the team’s scoring and rebounding leader a year ago, as well as reserve guards Drew Croegaert and Mike Avallone.
“Kyle Nelson was a great defensive center, and every championship team we’ve had has had someone fill that role and in Croegaert and Avallone, we lost two guys who filled critical roles off the bench,” Giovanine said.
Luke Scarlata, Brandon Kunz and Kevin Schlitter factor into things at the post, while Giovanine is waiting for backcourt depth to develop.
“We have some questions there, and we’ll see how things play out over time,” Giovanine said.
Time is one thing the Vikings have plenty of despite another challenging schedule.
“We’re going to be tested early and often, and that’s why it is important for us to challenge ourselves every day to get better,” Rorer said. “It’s a day-to-day deal.”
And ultimately, Augustana players believe that will lead them to where they want to be.
“We still have a pretty sour taste from the way things ended last season, one step short of the Final Four and we haven’t forgotten that,” DeSimone said. “But that is a long ways away from where we are at right now.”