Team preview: Lipscomb

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

The Lipscomb basketball program is all too familiar with unfinished business. It started back in 1956, when the Bisons began the season 1-10 before going on a furious rally, winning 14 of their last 19 games.

The hot streak culminated in a march through the NAIA regional tournament that would bring Lipscomb to Johnson City for a game against East Tennessee State with a berth into the nationals on the line.

Around 400 enthusiastic Bison fans hopped on a chartered train they dubbed "The Lipscomb Special" and began a daylong trip across the state to watch the title game. But alas, the faithful would return home disappointed. East Tennessee State walked away with an 80-67 victory, stamping its ticket to the nationals and ending Lipscomb's dream season.

Fifty years later, Lipscomb found itself in an oddly similar situation. The Bisons were back in Johnson City last March, needing one win to secure an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

History came close to repeating itself, but this time ETSU was not the one to administer the death blow. Rather it was cross-town rival Belmont, which eked out a 74-69 win in overtime.

After winning the Atlantic Sun regular-season title by claiming a tiebreaker over Belmont, the loss was particularly tough to take. A trip to the NIT offered some consolation, but coach Scott Sanderson and a strong group of returning players have one goal in mind—they want to make sure Lipscomb doesn't have to wait another 50 years for a chance to get into the Big Dance.

So, thanks to a NCAA rule that allows teams to play exhibition games outside of the country once every four years, Sanderson loaded up a modern-day "Lipscomb Special," this time traveling by air instead of by rail, to Canada over Labor Day weekend for a series of games.

Along with the trip came 10 valuable days of practice in late August, time for Sanderson and his staff to evaluate newcomers, and time for the newcomers to become part of the team.

"The positives for these practices and games far outweigh the negatives," Sanderson said. "We can find out what the new guys can do. You really don't know what a player can do until you bring them into the program.

"After we get back from Toronto we will work on redefining their skills and work on their weaknesses."
By the time the Bisons got back from Toronto with a 3-1 record, they were light years ahead of everybody else in the conference. Instead of trying to figure out where a newcomer would fit in by looking at individual drills, Sanderson had seen them in a game situation four times—six weeks before most other teams got to practice.

Sanderson is hoping the trip will give his team the edge it needs to finish what it started last year.

"This experience will be so valuable to us in January and February in terms of building this team," he said. "We wanted to build team unity and we wanted to learn the strengths and weaknesses of our players.

"After game one we learned more about our team than we did after 10 days of practice."

What Sanderson learned was that Lipscomb has the potential to be even better this season than last.

"All our pieces are getting better, which means our team is getting better," Sanderson said "We have improved, especially on the defensive end. I think we have more quality depth than we had last year.

"We can probably go eight, nine or 10 players a little easier than we could have the past year or two."