As an assistant, it can be easy to think you have all the answers.
Kevin Lofton found out differently when he took over as the head basketball coach at the University of Nebraska at Kearney last spring, replacing the legendary Tom Kropp.
“You move over one seat and it’s amazing how little you know,” he said. “And you realize the answers don’t come as easy.”
This season, the tests came quickly for Lofton.
He lost starting point guard Isaiah McKay three games in, dealt with an injury to standout senior Ethan Brozek and has helped his only other senior, Connor Beranek, navigate through the death of his father.
Then there are the mini challenges, as he calls them. Managing a staff and a team of 13. Going from making suggestions to making decisions.
“When you are head coach, you have a lot of things you have to deal with,” Lofton said. “There are a lot of hats you have to wear to get everyone through it.”
But Lofton, an Arizona native who has been on the staff since 1995, can’t imagine doing it anywhere else besides UNK. Maybe it’s tunnel vision, he says, but it’s the place he’s always wanted to be.
Players on the squad can’t imagine anyone else leading the team either. He recruited most of them.
“We all love Coach Lofton,” Brozek said. “We know how much this job means to him and how much he cares for us.”
The new combination is working. The Lopers are in second place in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association at 16-9 and 12-7. Northwest Missouri State has already clinched the regular-season title.
The Lopers sit in seventh place in the Central Region standings, which determine the 64-team field for nationals, a place UNK hasn’t been since 2007. The top eight from each region advance.
There have been some big wins along with the adversity. UNK beat Central Missouri on the road without Brozek. Lofton loved the offensive execution in a win over Missouri Southern.
But even better, he’s seen his players improve. That’s a joy, he said. He’s also proud of their resiliency.
“When you watch kids go through those stretches, it makes you feel good about the progress the team is making,” he said. “It’s working.”
Lofton said he’s tried to stay true to the things he learned from Kropp, who had a 482-245 record in his 25 years as head coach. Especially when it comes to fundamentals.
There are a few new sets and plays, but with an older team, he tries to let them play as much as possible. It’s something else he learned from Kropp.
“Let the kids get on the floor and figure it out,” Lofton said. “Let them be basketball players and not overthink things.”
There’s a little more emphasis on defense, Brozek said, which has always been Lofton’s forte. Assistants Ken Moses and Devin Eighmey focus more on the offense.
Brozek is a big part of that offense.
When he was out three games with a knee sprain in December, the Lopers went 1-2. A Mr. Do Everything who averages 14.3 points, he’s a good passer, can score inside and out and is a great leader.
“The kids really look to him in a lot of situations,” Lofton said. “He’s really calm and even-keeled. Not too high or too low. He keeps moving forward. He means a lot to our team.”
Beranek, of course, is another rock. He’s averaging 24.2 points and 8.3 rebounds a game. Lofton said he’s stepped up many times to get a win for his team.
“He’s done a great job for us,” he said.
With the loss of McKay, point guard has been by committee. Lane Rohrich is the primary person, but Kevin Dineen and Josh Sweet also take their turns. Other starters are Ty Danielson (8.4 points) and Trey Lansman (16.2).
Brozek said a big reason they’re winning is that they’re a bunch of guys who can score, whether in the post or shooting from long range.
“It’s hard for other teams to match up with us,” he said.
They’ll need everyone at their best to finish the season strong. UNK hosts Lindenwood, which is also fighting for a good seed, at 4 p.m. Saturday and finishes on the road at Central Oklahoma and Northeastern State next week.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge here down the stretch,” Lofton said. “I’m happy with where we’re at, but I’m not satisfied at this point.”
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