Summer is already over for the Lipscomb basketball teams, which have returned to campus to get acquainted with new faces among players and staff and begin preparations for their 2019-20 campaigns.
Although these teams experienced very different stories last year—with the men’s team’s NIT Finals run earning them the ASUN Beam Award and the women experiencing one of the worst seasons in program history—both teams begin this season after tremendous turnover and tumult in their programs.
The men’s team’s turnover came as the result of the success of prior coach Casey Alexander, who took the job at his alma mater, Belmont, after legendary coach Rick Byrd retired. In his six years at Lipscomb, Alexander’s teams had a 113-84 record, posting three straight 20-victory seasons, including the 29-8 campaign that took them to the NIT finals last season. The year before, he led the Bisons to their first-ever NCAA March Madness berth.
It was a lack of success that shaped the change in the women’s program. In four years, coach Greg Brown posted a 44-164 record. The Lady Bisons finished last season 4-25 in a campaign that included a 19-game losing streak. The school looked for new vigor from a new leader for that program.
After a number of player departures, two first-time Division I head coaches, men’s basketball’s Lennie Acuff and women’s basketball’s Lauren Sumski, take over as the new head coaches of Lipscomb’s basketball programs. Joining these two are four new assistants and 12 new players, including eight on the men’s team, bringing a new vibe to Lipscomb basketball.
During their battle to the NIT Finals in Madison Square Garden, the men’s team established themselves as one of the premier mid-major programs, bringing national recognition to their winning culture.
This stood out to one Lipscomb transfer, junior forward Parker Hazen.
“It was just the culture that they have here. Great environment. Great community,” Hazen said. “I needed the opportunity to play, and there was an opportunity to help a team, a successful team, that attracted me here.”
Despite coach Acuff’s two-decade investment in the basketball program at the University of Alabama Huntsville, this culture and commitment to excellence also convinced him that this was the right move for him and his wife.
“I had always said that if we changed jobs or took another job I’d want it to be somewhere where I felt like at the Division I level we could do it the way we did it at Huntsville—where it is a really good academic school, that my belief system lines up with the institution, and that we could do it without compromise—and I feel like Lipscomb checks all three of those boxes,” Acuff said.
Similarly, even after the Lady Bisons’ four-win season, this program’s push toward competing with the best in the league comes from new head coach Sumski’s unmistakable passion about her new job.
“I feel like God made it so evident that this is where we are supposed to be and that every player is here for a reason. It’s just God’s sovereignty covering all of that,” Sumski said.
These coaching changes have already made their marks on Lipscomb basketball. When asked what stood out about their new coaches, sophomore guard Keely Morrow and senior guard Michael Buckland were both quick to answer “energy.”
“His (Acuff’s) energy is what sticks out to me the most,” Buckland said. “Every day he is just so excited to be here, excited for the opportunity and (shows) his positivity about the situation.”
Equally electrifying is the Lady Bison’s locker room, according to Morrow.
“We come in every day, and they (the coaching staff) are always positive, they are always excited. So that just spreads throughout the team,” Morrow commented. “Everybody’s always excited, and there’s always energy.”
Buckland said fans shouldn’t be fooled by the dramatic change among the faces on the sidelines or on the floor.
“A lot of people could come in here and realize that we have eight returners and eight new guys and be like ‘Oh, this is a rebuild year, we’ll do the best we can.’ But that’s not how he (Acuff) is looking at it at all,” Buckland said. “He’s looking at it as an opportunity for new guys to fill in roles that were filled last year and to take that on with a lot of confidence.”
The confidence that both Sumski and Acuff bring to their respective teams is evident from the minute you walk into their offices, according to these players, who say the teams have easily bought into the coaches’ visions.
“I want us to be the most together team in the country,” Sumski said. “I want us to go out there and maximize our ability, and I want us to go out there and compete and win the ASUN conference.”
Morrow was quick to echo these goals. “To win the ASUN. Win the ASUN, for sure; that would be one of the biggest things for me personally. But I think at the end of the season being happy where we are (is our goal).”
Acuff said this year he is also setting his long-range expectations.
“We are going to approach it every year the same way,” Acuff said. “Let’s get better every day, and let’s represent Lipscomb and our school and everything that it stands for in the right way.”
This message has resonated with his players, who say they are ready to give their all for him and their teammates.
“Personally, I think we have a really good, talented group of guys. I think in the short our expectation is to get better every day, and I think that we will be fine if we do that,” Hazen said, “We are a bunch of hardworking guys, who care deeply about basketball, and we are going to work our tails off each and every day to improve and put Lipscomb on the map.”
“I think we are going to work our tails off to be as good as we can be. We are going to try and hit our cap, whatever that is, we don’t know it right now,” Buckland added. “But to be the best that we can be every single day, we are going to work hard at it, and we are going to believe that we can do it.”
With all of the new faces and changes, both coaches emphasize “family” as key to improving the teams’ chemistry.
“I think right now we are just loving on each other a whole lot and working on becoming the best players and coaches we can be. It’s been just a really fun process to be a part of,” Sumski said. “Family is something that I preach and try to practice and try to be really intentional about making time for.”
This focus on family quickly has created deeper and stronger bonds among the Lady Bisons. quickly. “I am a lot closer to any of the girls than I was last year,” Morrow added. “We do triple H’s, which is hardships, highlights and heroes, as a team, and it makes you really vulnerable and open to share with people. So I think that brings us together.”
Acuff said he also understands the need to create tight bonds in his program as he works to form a team with only half of the players returning.
“We each need to get to know each other. We need to invest in relationships; there needs to be strong meaningful relationships and that takes time,” Acuff said. Closeness among the players and staff will come by “just being around them, just trying to learn what makes them tick, getting to know what their story is and how they ended up at Lipscomb, and then trying to mesh all the personalities together.”
The coaches’ visions of “family” is emphasized on the practice floor as well.
“The first day that we are here we start camp; we have day camp all day, and then when we finish camp, we go into workouts,” Buckland said. “It helps create a bond and a chemistry through camp where you are already having to work together to get scheduling right and to get kids to the right places.
“On top of that, you are going into workouts tired already… so it creates leadership opportunities, it creates breakthrough opportunities for guys mentally to just get through the barriers.”
These relationships are helping Bisons overcome the challenges of filling in the gaps that graduates and transfers and, of course, the coaching vacancies at the end of last season created.
“It is going to be very difficult,” Acuff said. “But our approach this summer has been ‘let’s just get better and let’s control what we can control.’ What we can control is every day coming in and being the best version of us that we can be, and that’s the approach we will take every day.
He said he appreciates the leadership offered by the returning veterans.
“I’m really appreciative of the way they have accepted me, the way they have been open to my ideas and my way of doing things,” he said. “They really have a humility and a coachability that has made the transition really smooth.”
Buckland said this year’s teams will bring three things to the court when play opens: “Effort, energy, and belief.”
Hazen added that last year’s team put the school on the map with “a great NIT run. But as far as this team, we are going to be a very hardworking team.”
Sumski kept smiling when talking about the upcoming season. “I think our young women are buying in right now and working so incredibly hard to develop their skills, and that’s going to make us a much better team.
“he team is just really, really, really together, and that’s one of our goals that I think we are already halfway there; and it’s only been a month, so that’s really exciting for us.”
Both the men’s and women’s teams will open their seasons in November with schedules to be announced later this summer.
Photo courtesy of Mckenzi Harris.