North Central Men’s Basketball seniors spearhead start of new era

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A variety of motivations for NCC Men’s Basketball seniors in their final seasons

For the seniors of North Central men’s basketball, there were a variety of motivations in their final collegiate season: family, brotherhood, aspirations of success, and in one specific case the opportunity to top off a four year college football career with a return to the hardwood.

“I grew up around the program my entire life, so it was kind of an easy sell to come back and represent the school for one more year,” said senior guard Matt Helwig. “Also, to get a chance to play with my brother (Ethan, who is one year younger than Matt) for one more year. I mean, it’s not many people get to play with their brother for two years in any level sports, let alone college.” 

“I would say we had our sights on like big dreams, big goals,” said senior guard Shea Cupples. “We were talking about Final Four. We thought we could make it, especially with the teams we played against in our conference last year and how far they went. You know, we thought we could have done the same this year.” 

“Well, when I was playing my junior year at Illinois State, I suffered a knee injury while catching a pass that ended my season like halfway through,” said grad student Mitch Lewis who split his college football career between Miami University and Illinois State. “So I wasn’t really settled on ending that way. And I wanted to get my master’s too. So from the be here, why not, you know, play basketball to use that last year.”

Building the foundation with a new head coach

While it was the final year for many of the team’s key contributors and veterans, it was the first year for new head coach Anthony Figueroa, who previously spent 9 years as the head men’s basketball coach at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois. He succeeds Todd Raridon, who led the Cardinals for 18 seasons. Those are big shoes to fill, and a big opportunity that Figueroa was excited about for reasons both on and off the court.

“Winning, tradition, location, conference. I think all that, you know, encompasses a decision,” said Figueroa. “You know, we talk about the location, not just the fact that we’re next to downtown Naperville, but the fact that living in Naperville, when you have young kids like I do school districts and adulting come into play. I think all that’s a factor. You know, however, the tradition in winning and playing in the best league in the country night in and night out and being tested by the best players and the best coaches. You know, as a competitor, I think that’s what you seek out.”

“We actually got the chance to interview him last year, which was pretty neat,” Cupples said of the process to hire Figueroa. “You could tell that we all clicked with him well, and yea just getting him on campus that summer then in the fall, you know, it’s connecting with him, reaching out, building the connection. So I wouldn’t say it was easy, but I mean, I thought we played it pretty smooth and we just were all about communication and I thought we did as good of a job as you could have through that transition.”

“There were a lot of minutes coming back, so I wish I was confident they’d have some chemistry, and they did,” Figueroa said of the team he inherited. “You know, there was a comfortability with each other, which is great. So Just knowing that the cupboard wasn’t bare probably is the best way to put it. It was always positive and again, made the job very intriguing.”

“It was definitely an adjustment that I think us older guys kind of took upon ourselves to try and learn as fast as possible,” said Helwig. “And, you know, when you’re taught certain things for three years and you get something totally new brought in, it’s a challenge. But I think we’ve picked up on it fairly quickly to be honest with you.”

“I thought it was as smooth as a transition can go with communication wise and just reaching out and being get in here over the summer during open jams and, you know, meeting him, talking with him and just yeah, I thought a seniors did as good of a job as you could have done in a situation like that,” Cupples said.

“You don’t want to change too much too quickly, so I’m sure our assistant coaches got tired of me asking, ‘Well, how did you guys do this in the past?,’ said Figueroa, who also inherited assistants Vince Kmiec, Pat Doherty and Alex Sorensen. “I wanted to make sure that there were some you know, there was a bridge that I just didn’t come in. And just overnight, we’re just going to do things completely different because some things didn’t need to change. The program was in a good spot, is in a good spot. So a lot of things won’t necessarily need to change.”

A season of ups and downs that finished strong

While the Cardinals and their new coach did go through their growing pains, they rounded into form down the stretch of the season and won their final three games to secure a spot in the CCIW Tournament. Matt Helwig was selected as a unanimous First Team All CCIW inclusion for the second year in a row, while Lewis earned Second Team honors despite only joining the team at the semester break. It was Lewis’ integration into the squad and his growing partnership with Helwig in particular that paralleled the Cardinals playing their best basketball.

“I think he’s a very smart player and he knows spacing on the court, where to be,” Helwig said of Lewis. “So I think it was kind of a natural transition for us to play together. But there were definitely some rough parts at first because he hasn’t played basketball in a long time. So I think later in the season we kind of picked up on it and started to click a lot more.”

“I know what my strengths are, you know, down low, low at the block,” Lewis said. “You take that away, then I’m just going to try to, you know, find something else to find another way to score and whatnot. And, you know, if I were to describe my game, I think I can do a little bit of everything.”

“I thought we had a good groove going late, which is, which is what you want, knowing who want to be at your best late on, I think it was guys just respecting each other, listening to coaching, understanding who could do what when, what they were good at, but maybe struggled it and just coming together in that respect,” said Figueroa.

“I would say this year was a journey,” Cupples said. “I think we started off, you know, we felt pretty good with our first few wins early on in the season. And, you know, we had a rough patch, which, you know, it’s difficult. You know, it’s not as easy as everyone thinks with with a new coach, which, you know, we ran some of the same stuff as the years past. The last three regular season games you know I just hope the guys next year build on that and see what it looks like playing good basketball under Coach Fig and the staff here.” 

Reflecting on the good after an abrupt end to the year and to basketball careers

The four-point loss at Elmhurst University in the CCIW quarterfinals (in which Helwig scored 33 points and Lewis added 19) is obviously not the way the seniors would have liked the season or their careers to end. Figueroa has only been part of the last year of their journeys, but he knows just how much they’ve meant to the program and the things beyond their on-court contributions he’ll have to replace. Meanwhile, the players hope they did all they could to set an example for their teammates who will be charged with making each successive year of the Figueroa era better than the one before.

“We’re going to miss leadership, you know, whether it’s, for example, Matt’s, not necessarily a big vocal guy, but he does have a story and he has a work ethic that that just permeates throughout the program,” said Figueroa. “And you see him and you know, you’ve got to try to emulate that if you want to be a good player in this league. Shea is more of a vocal guy, so we’ll miss that. But hopefully some guys can step up in their place and we can keep things moving forward.”

“I think it’s discipline, you know, showing up every day, going through tough practices and, you know, college basketball isn’t easy,” Helwig said. “The first year I was here, I never thought of myself in terms of a  20 points per game average, or first team all conference. So I just had to really put in a lot of work and I guess it showed off. So now, you know, some of the younger guys can take what I did learn from my work ethic and then build upon that.”

“I think that we, you know, obviously didn’t end the season as we wanted to,” reflected Lewis. “But I think that we took a lot of steps in the right direction for the next team next year.”

Added Cupples, “There’s just something about being on a team and the camaraderie of being with your teammates and your brothers going out to war every day and including practice and games is something I’ll miss for sure.”