Houston Baptist basketball joined NCAA Division I in the 2013-2014 season. That was the same year they added four freshmen who would prove critical to the program’s growth – Reveal Chukwujekwu, Alex Fountain, Colter Lasher, and Cody Stetler.
Those four are now key seniors leading the Huskies into Southland Conference play, which continues against Central Arkansas Thursday on ASN.
For head coach Ron Cottrell, now in his 26th season at HBU, the last time he had four players move through the program together since freshman year was the first class he recruited in 1991.
“They were here with us starting in the Southland, and it’s been fun to see the growth that they’ve really brought to our program,” said Cottrell. “It's a good core group of guys – they know what we want on and off the court. They’re all really good students and great representatives of the school.”
Along with senior graduate transfer Atif Russell from Pepperdine, the Huskies field one of the most experienced senior classes in Division I basketball.
To date, they’ve needed it. HBU is out of the gate at 3-1 in the conference and 7-7 overall after playing one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country. That slate included Indiana (10-5), Texas Tech (12-3), Rice (11-6), Marquette (10-5), and Northwestern (13-4), among others.
“I think had we played that kind of schedule with a younger team it probably could have consumed them and really been a detriment. Whereas with these guys I think they took that on as a challenge,” said Cottrell.
The four are a diverse group. Colter Lasher hails from Anchorage, Alaska and leads all Husky scorers with a 15.6 ppg average. Like many Alaskan high school athletes, he was off the radar of most colleges. He spent a post-graduate year at Las Vegas’s Impact Basketball Academy to boost his visibility.
HBU was the only Division I school to make Lasher an offer, a decision that has paid large dividends. “I wanted to play against the highest level of competition,” said Lasher. “The city of Houston was huge, compared to where I was in Alaska. I really got along with the coaches when they were recruiting me and it seemed like a good fit.”
Chukwujekwu, a guard, was at the other end of the geographical recruiting spectrum arriving from Houston’s Strake Jesuit, only about a five-minute drive from HBU. He summed up what it’s like to play as a group of four for four years.
“I know every one of these guys moves – when Colter has somebody on him that can't guard him and Alex’s [looking for his] favorite turnaround jump shot,” said Chukwujekwu. “I know when Cody has his signature up and under. I've known these guys for so long, so when we're on the court, it's all instinctive.”
Stetler, a 6’9” center, arrived as a freshman from Hoisington, Kan. “One of those hard-nosed, tough guys. He played football, and his dad played at Kansas State – he was being recruited by them and some other Big-XII schools for football,” said Cottrell. “We thought he’d be a gritty post player who could give us some toughness – sure enough, that's what he's done.” To date this season, the senior has pulled down 30 boards, blocked six shots, and dropped in 41 points for the Huskies.
Fountain, a Wartburg, Tenn., native who was named the state’s Class A “Mr. Basketball” as a high school senior, kicks in eight points a game for the Huskies and is hitting at a 46.2% clip from behind the arc.
“We know what type moves we're about to do. In practice it gives us a chance to push each other, knowing each other so well,” said Fountain. “Then in the game, there are times that we don't even have to communicate with each other because we know what the other person is about to do,” said Fountain.
The program’s progress within Division I readily correlates to the group’s progression to upperclassmen. In 2013-2014 the Huskies finished 6-25, and jumped to 12-16 the following season. Last year they went 17-17 (10-8 in the Southland), and this season the Huskies will compete for the conference title.
Junior big man Josh Ibarra is a powerful complement to the HBU’s corps of upperclassmen. Ibarra shot 68% from the floor last week in a pair of conference wins over Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese, capturing Southland Player of the Week honors in the process.
The four, as a smaller subset of the larger team, in turn correlate to what may be HBU’s trump card in the recruiting process – a small “place” (undergraduate population of 2,200) within a large metro region (Houston metro area = 6.3 million).
In 2012, Baltimore’s tiny Loyola University Maryland rode a similar proportional relationship to an NCAA men’s lacrosse title when it slew nearby Goliath, Maryland.
“You aren’t really just another number, and have more of a one-on-one with the teachers,” said Stetler. "But there’s always something to do. Coming from a small town, that’s definitely a big plus.”
Tom Flynn is a freelance writer based in Frederick, Md. Follow him on Twitter at @tomflynn51.