By CHRIS COOK
This past Saturday, Longwood men’s basketball debuted its 2021-22 squad as part of its Season Tip-Off Event on Longwood’s campus.
Following a Friday night of fun, food and festivities – and a tour of the new-look Willett Hall – the Lancers took the court Saturday morning to an open crowd for the first time at the annual Blue-White Scrimmage. The exhibition pitted the 16 Lancers against one another in a four-quarter intrasquad that offered fans a first look at what’s in store for head coach Griff Aldrich‘s fourth edition of Longwood basketball.
With less than a month before Longwood’s season-opening tipoff at Iowa on Nov. 9, here are some observations about what Lancer nation can expect in 2021-22.
Willett Hall’s court got a serious upgrade.
Longwood’s basketball programs have looked great in Willett Hall since men’s head coach Griff Aldrich and women’s head coach Rebecca Tillett took over the programs in 2018-19, and now their home court looks the part as well.
Unveiled to fans for the first time this past weekend, Jerome Kersey Court’s new design features an enlarged Longwood “L Horse” logo at center court set on top of a silhouette of the Virginia state outline. The Commonwealth stretches from foul line to foul line and gives a nod to Longwood University’s home in Farmville – commonly known as the Heart of Virginia – and the town’s prominent placement in the center of the state.
The court redesign comes two years before the planned opening of the Joan Perry Brock Center, which is slated for the spring of 2023. And while the Lancers will migrate their home to that new state-of-the-art building, Willett Hall and its fresh new look will continue to serve as a practice gym for both Longwood basketball programs.
And as good as Longwood’s court looks for this upcoming season…
This year’s Lancers are fun, talented and deep.
Longwood head coach Griff Aldrich made a splash with his fourth recruiting class, adding an eight-player group that includes a number of high-impact transfers, including former Virginia High School Player of the Year Michael Christmas (James Madison), three-time MEAC champion Jordan Perkins (N.C. Central) and ACC veteran Isaiah Wilkins (Virginia Tech/Wake Forest). That’s in addition to the veteran core Longwood was already bringing back for 2021-22, led by proven guards Justin Hill and DeShaun Wade, swingman Jesper Granlund, and versatile forwards Leslie Nkereuwem and Zac Watson.
That mix of talent both old and new leaves the Lancers at least two players deep at all five positions on the floor, and three players deep in several spots. And while the Lancers can deploy only five of those players at a time, the Blue-White Scrimmage offered an opportunity for Longwood to showcase just how deep this year’s team can be.
As evidence, three of the four quarters Saturday were decided by no more than two points, which is impressive considering the lineups and rotations changed every quarter. Hill, Wade, Nate Lliteras and freshmen Jaylani Darden and Ga’Khari LaCount all took turns leading their teams in scoring each period, and by the end of the game three players – Hill, Lliteras and Wade – all shared the team scoring lead with 13 points apiece.
But while the production from Hill and Wade was something Lancer fans came to expect last year…
Nate Lliteras is making a case for a bigger role in 2021-22.
When record-setting guard Juan Munoz graduated from Longwood this past May, it left a sizable hole in Longwood’s lineup. A consistent scorer and the program’s all-time Division I leader in three-point percentage, Munoz had emerged as an All-Big South talent who fit well into head coach Griff Aldrich‘s offensive scheme.
One player who made an audition Saturday to step into that scoring and shooting role was redshirt sophomore Nate Lliteras.
A uniquely skilled guard who stands at 6-7 and 210 pounds, Lliteras showed flashes of scoring prowess in his first season on the court last season with two double-digit scoring games and a team-leading .425 (17-of-40) three-point percentage. At the Blue-White Scrimmage, Lliteras showed that and more, pulling the trigger on a team-leading 13 field goal attempts and tying for the team lead with 13 points.
Lliteras showcased the ability to score at all three levels, backing down defenders in the paint, pulling up for mid-range jumpers and connecting on three three-pointers. He also added seven rebounds and one of the game’s two blocks, hinting at more to come from the Seward, Neb., native.
And as one of many intriguing guard options for the Lancers this season…
Longwood has no shortage of talent in the backcourt.
Guard play has long been the anchor of Longwood basketball under head coach Griff Aldrich, but if Sunday’s scrimmage is any indicator, Longwood’s backcourt is especially stacked this year. Longwood’s guards accounted for more than 80 percent of the team’s scoring in the scrimmage with Justin Hill, DeShaun Wade and 6-7 swingman Nate Lliteras all scoring 13 points apiece.
With a wealth of talent to deploy, the backcourt rotations were difficult to keep tabs on, as Hill, Perkins and even freshmen Jaylani Darden and Ga’Khari LaCount all took turns at the point. Meanwhile, Wade, Virginia Tech/Wake Forest transfer Isaiah Wilkins and College of Charleston transfer DA Houston all shared time both on and off the ball.
But even more impressive than the sheer number of guards Longwood has at its disposal is the varied style of play each brings to the floor and the collective versatility of the group.
Perkins looked the part of a true point guard and racked up a team-high six assists, while Hill showcased the dynamic, do-it-all form that earned him Big South All-Freshman Team accolades a year ago. Wade brought his typical hard-nosed play and all-around production, the 6-4, 220-pound Wilkins showcased his ACC-caliber game, LaCount showed a penchant for scoring in bursts, and Darden showed off a unique skillset for a 6-5 guard.
One of the challenges the Lancers may face this season is finding the right combination of those players, many of which are still in the early stages of learning Longwood’s system and finding their own place in the program. But even as Aldrich and the staff continue to parse out what the 2021-22 version of Longwood basketball will look like, one aspect of Longwood’s backcourt was clear:
Point guards Justin Hill and Juice Perkins are a dynamic duo.
In sophomore Justin Hill and N.C. Central graduate transfer Jordan Perkins, Longwood lays claim to one of the top point guard tandems in the Big South.
In the four-period scrimmage Saturday, those two were teammates twice and opponents twice, putting on display not only their mirrored competitiveness but also their synergy in leading Longwood’s offense. In their longest run on the same side of the ball, their Blue squad was responsible for a 13-8 second-period win that was the largest margin of victory all day.
A four-year starter and three-time MEAC champion at N.C. Central, Perkins brings more than 100 games and two NCAA Tournaments worth of experience to the Lancer program. Meanwhile, Hill was a revelation in his first season as a Lancer, averaging the second-most points ever by a Longwood freshman in the Division I era on the way to Big South All-Freshman Team honors. But even as the pair only started playing together this past summer, their chemistry at Saturday’s scrimmage was evident.
Perkins played facilitator throughout, dishing six assists to just one turnover while contributing six points on 2-for-4 shooting in his 29 minutes of action. Hill tied for the team lead with 13 points, hitting 4-of-6 field goals and both three-point attempts, while also contributing an assist and a steal. Together they combined to shoot 6-of-8 from the floor with a 7:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, representing more than 40 percent of Longwood’s total assists and a quarter of the total scoring.
And beyond the numbers, the duo more than passed the eye test. If you don’t believe it, just ask around because…
Fans in the stands are a welcome sight.
No official attendance was recorded at the Blue-White Scrimmage, but the couple hundred Lancer faithful that showed up Saturday morning provided an atmosphere that Willett Hall has not seen since early 2020.
After closing home games to the public for the entire 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, empty stands in Longwood’s home arena had unfortunately become commonplace for more than a year. However, that changed Saturday when a portion of Longwood’s fanbase brought back the familiar whoops and cheers that have long been a staple of the Lancers’ cozy home court. Justin Hill’s driving layups, DeShaun Wade’s arcing three-pointers and flashes of brilliance from several Lancer newcomers seemed all the more exciting when they were followed by a burst of crowd noise. Two of those newcomers made their cases as soon-to-be fan favorites, as freshman Ga’Khari LaCount and graduate transfer point guard Jordan Perkins both elicited plenty of applause with a series of impressive plays throughout.
With Willett Hall nowhere near capacity Saturday, it’s exciting to imagine what the reunion between Longwood basketball and its fans will bring in November.
By CHRIS COOK