Although the 2018-19 season seems like ages away, the Lancers of Cal Baptist have been waiting for their Division I moment for a while.
California Baptist University announced its move from Division II to the WAC on Jan. 13 2017, making the Lancers the ninth school in the conference and the 10th Division I basketball program in the Greater Los Angeles area. Right on the heels of an exciting Elite 8 appearance, the PacWest powerhouse — they have five-straight 20-plus-win seasons and NCAA Division II Tournament appearances — will be the 352nd (or 353rd, since North Alabama is also joining) Division I basketball team.
Here are a few simple questions and answers about the Western Athletic Conference’s newest team:
Who is Cal Baptist?
According to its website, “California Baptist University (CBU) is one of the top private Christian colleges and universities in Southern California.” Located in Riverside, CA, the 7,957 Cal Baptist students are a mere 11-minute drive from UC Riverside, over an hour’s drive from downtown Los Angeles, and 35 miles east of Disneyland.
Basketball-wise, the Cal Baptist Lancers have competed at the Division II level in the PacWest conference since 2010, and before that had been an NAIA school since 1969.
Where do they play?
The Lancers play in the CBU Events Center, a newly-renovated 5,200-seat arena that rivals most of the mid-major arenas in the Greater Los Angeles area.
As-is, the CBU Events Center is one of the smaller arenas in the WAC — it’s bigger than only the UTRGV Fieldhouse and Cal State Bakersfield’s Icardo Center — but it is the most up-to-date. The $73 million arena opened in time for their raucous opening night last season, which appears to be GCU-esque (or at least GCU-Lite, but hey: everyone is GCU-Lite):
Which players or personnel should fans get to know?
The story starts with head coach Rick Croy, the 12th — and arguably most successful — head coach in program history.
The onetime Saint Mary’s assistant learned not only how to win during his time working with Randy Bennett (the Lancers are an impressive 132-29 in his five-year tenure), but also how to create an Australian recruiting pipeline. The Lancers had four international players on their rosters last season, including two Aussies.
As for the players, don’t sleep on the the Lancers. Bolstered by an intriguing group of Division I transfers, Cal Baptist’s roster will be no stranger to heightened competition in 2018-19. Their frontcourt is chock full of Division I talent in Mike Henn (UC Davis) and Zach Pirog (Nebraska-Omaha). Throw in Wyoming graduate transfer Jeremy Lieberman (4.8 ppg and 2.5 apg in 22.6 mpg), and next year’s roster will be rather experienced.
But the real player to watch has not played at the Division I level. Rising senior guard Jordan Heading is a three-year player in Croy’s system, and has plenty of experience with the U20 and U18 Australian National Teams, plus the U16 Energen Pilipinas team, under his belt. Heading was the second-leading scorer from last season (14.4 ppg) and led the Lancers in assists (4.8 per game), minutes (30.4) and steals (35).
How will the Lancers fare in the WAC?
My knee-jerk reaction is the Lancers will be towards the bottom of the WAC. They’ll likely finish the season anywhere from the sixth to eighth (apologies to Chicago State) spots in their first year of WAC play. The WAC is already a top-heavy conference with New Mexico State, GCU, Utah Valley, and a resurgent Seattle squad, so barring drastic injuries or transfers, the Lancers won’t be in the upper echelon.
Regardless of how they place in the conference, Cal Baptist won’t be eligible to play in the postseason (including the conference tournament) until 2022-23. By then, they will likely be the only California school in the conference, as Cal State Bakersfield will join the Big West in 2020.