North Park eyes returns to prominence

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Entering this week Juwan Henry and teammate Jordan Robinson were both ranked in the top 20 for points per game among all Division III men's players.
North Park athletics photo 

With the help of two D3hoops.com Preseason All-Americans, the North Park men’s basketball program is looking to once again return to national prominence.

Senior guard Juwan Henry along with junior forward Jordan Robinson have guided North Park to a 5-0 start and entered the most recent rankings at No. 18.

The two arrived at the Chicago campus years ago to help change the identity of a once-prominent program that spent the last two decades in mediocrity.

“North Park has a rich tradition with five national titles and there’s been four guys drafted in the NBA,” North Park’s fifth-year head coach Tom Slyder said. “At the time we were recruiting Juwan and Jordan, the program was at a really low level.”

The last time North Park finished in the top half of the CCIW was in 1993-94, which was also the last time the Vikings had a conference record above .500.

Coming off a season in which North Park finished 6-19 overall and 2-12 in CCIW play in the 2011-12 season, Slyder was hired to take over the program.

The Vikings finished 6-19, 1-13 in the CCIW in Slyder’s first season and 4-21, 1-13 in the second.

During the recruitment, Slyder said he ensured his two future stars they would have an opportunity to get minutes early.

“The one thing we could sell was playing time,” Slyder said. “That, along with the opportunity to help turn this thing around and bring this program back to the level of success that it once had.”

North Park went through a decade of dominance in the late 1970s into the 1980s. The Vikings’ dynasty won five national titles in 10 years, including three consecutive from 1978-80.

North Park had three players drafted into the NBA in 1980. Mike Harper was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers, Modzel Greer went to the Chicago Bulls and Keith French was drafted by the Phoenix Suns. In 1981, Michael Thomas went to the Philadelphia 76ers.

After his first two seasons that combined for a 10-40 overall record, including 2-26 in conference play, Slyder saw significant improvement.

In his third season at North Park, Slyder’s team finished 15-10 and went 6-8 in conference, followed by a 14-10 overall record, including 6-8 in conference play.

That brings us to now. North Park is nationally ranked, unbeaten and off to its best start in more than 30 years, thanks in large part due to two of the country’s top scorers.

“They arrived here on campus right away with the ability to score,” Slyder said. “Both of those guys joined at a time when the program was pretty poor, and we were kind of revamping the entire program, so we need to rely on someone to score the basketball.”

Robinson averages a double-double with 24.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, while Henry averages 24.2 points per contest.

Henry has led the conference in scoring the last two seasons and finished second in his freshman season. He and Robinson were the CCIW’s top two scorers in the 2015-16 season, and that remains the case early in this season.

“We play off each other real well,” Henry said. “This is our third year together, and we like to play with each other. In my freshman year, it was kind of hard because teams really focused on me, and now you can’t because Jordan Robinson is on the other side. Teams have to pick their poison.”

Robinson said he has lofty goals in the final season he and Henry will be on the same college basketball team.

“I think this year we want a national championship,” Robinson said. “I feel like, out of all the four years, I’ll be in college, the best chance I would have to get it would be if I had another preseason All-American on my team. That doesn’t happen too much, so I just want to go all in.”

Just a short while ago, the North Park basketball program was a mainstay near the bottom of the CCIW, and now one of its stars is talking about the opportunity to play for a national title.

“In five years, these two guys along with several others helped us get to this point where D3hoops is willing to pick up the phone and do articles on us,” Slyder said. “There has been a lot of movement here in a very storied program in a very storied conference, and we’re just very excited that we’re finally breaking through with the opportunity to continue moving this thing forward.”

Poll position

UW-Eau Claire made the largest jump in the latest men’s Top 25 rankings. The Blugolds moved from No. 21 to No. 10 as the lone men's representative from the WIAC in the poll.

The CCIW now has three teams in the Top 25 with North Park making an appearance at No. 18 after being previously unranked. North Central (Ill.) moved from sixth to ninth, and Illinois Wesleyan remained at No. 16 with Augustana falling out from No. 17.

From the MWC, St. Norbert moved up two spots to No. 8, and Benedictine stayed at No. 14 from the NACC. Washington U. fell four spots from No. 9 to No. 13 from the UAA.

Three teams from the WIAC remain in the women’s Top 25 rankings. UW-Oshkosh moved up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10, UW-Whitewater jumped from 22nd to 18th, and UW-Stevens Point fell from No. 21 to No. 23.

Washington U. represents the UAA in the Central as the sixth-ranked team in the country, moving up one slot, while Chicago went from No. 25 to unranked.

Wheaton (Ill.) moved up from No. 19 to No. 17 as the lone representative of the CCIW in the poll.

Check these out

The Around the Central column will be taking a bit of a break during the holiday season, but we’ll be back. In the meantime, here are some key matchups to get you your D3hoops fix.

No. 18 North Park @ No. 16 Illinois Wesleyan (MBB) – Wednesday, Dec. 7 – You’ve got a chance to check out the team we featured this week’s Around the Central column right away, as North Park takes on Illinois Wesleyan in a Top 25 matchup.

No. 17 Wheaton (Ill.) @ No. 10 UW-Oshkosh (WBB) – Saturday, Dec. 10 – After losing the season-opener by two points, Wheaton (Ill.) has gone on a run to win five straight and will face a tough test against UW-Oshkosh, who will enter the game unbeaten at 5-0.

No, 8 St. Norbert @ UW-Oshkosh (MBB) – Tuesday, Dec. 20 – St. Norbert has dominated this in-state matchup for years, but UW-Oshkosh has the talent to give the Green Knights a tough test at home.

No. 10 UW-Eau Claire vs. Gustavus Adolphus (MBB) – Wednesday, Dec. 28 – UW-Eau Claire has gotten off to a hot start to move up to No. 10 in the country and will play Gustavus Adolphus  in the first day of the D3hoops.com Classic in Las Vegas.

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Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University where he was a two-year starter at free safety for the Generals' football team. A contributor to D3football.com since 2007, Adam is now the lead columnist for the site, writing Around the Nation and other national features. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney.
2016-17 columnist: Erik Buchinger
2011-16 columnist: Josh Smith