Countdown to 2015–16: Tanner Leissner and New Hampshire are poised for a breakout season

Leissner was named the America East Freshman of the Year, and second-team all league in ‘14–15.

Tanner Leissner didn’t recognize the 603 area code popping up on his phone. And those three letters, representing a college program seeking his services, didn’t register.

What is UNH?

Leissner is from Converse, Texas, and he had never been to the East Coast. But he talked with his parents, and decided to add this school to his college list, which also included Liberty and Abilene Christian.

He learned that UNH provided strong academics, as well as the school size he was looking for. (Undergraduate enrollment is just under 13,000.) When Leissner visited the campus in the fall, he loved it. This was the place he was meant to be.

“It would be a good experience,” Leissner says. “I’d see something new. Something good could come of trying something different.” So far, so good: as a UNH freshman, Leissner was named America East Freshman of the Year, and second team all-league.

Bill Herrion, New Hampshire’s coach since 2005, has often spoken of nearly turning the corner with the program, five years ago. But injuries scuppered successive seasons, and progress quickly derailed.

When Herrion and his staff would visit with top talent in the Northeast, they’d learn the recruits were learning toward the ever-growing Ivy and Patriot Leagues.

It became a course in adapt or die, and Herrion decided to look elsewhere for recruits. “It’s funny,” says Herrion. “UNH basketball doesn’t have a history of great success — and I’m talking over 100 years.”

Herrion has coached for over 30 years, and he can attest to the fundamental shift in the recruiting landscape over that time. “There’s so much exposure,” he says. “There’s no secrets anymore. So, when we weren’t winning, kids in the Northeast weren’t lining up to come here.”

Herrion knew that Hartford had had some success recruiting Texas kids, so he decided to follow suit. That first spring, after settling upon developing this new pipeline, Herrion and his staff went to an early AAU tournament in April. They convinced one kid to commit. Then, they got two more.

This blossomed from there. Says Herrion, “We’d love to have in-state and regional kids on our team, but you look at our roster (for ‘15–16), and see eight Texas kids. Thing is — they all play.

“I know it looks crazy. It’s UNH. You see where we’re located. We haven’t had much success. But we’ve gotten good players from Texas, and it’s saved our program.”

Herrion knew he was getting a good player in Leissner — kid had been part of a Judson High team that won 37 games in a row, against strong competition — but no one could have foreseen the impact Leissner had as a freshman.

That comes down to his makeup. At Judson, Leissner had nothing handed to him. He played for the Freshman A team, then had to work his way into the Varsity rotation, beginning in his sophomore season. He remembers barely playing in the first few games of that season, and resolving not to sulk about it. “I’m real competitive, and I hate being on the bench, so I worked my butt off,” he says.

Toward the end of that sophomore year, he became the team’s sixth man. As a junior and senior, he starred.

Here developed the well-rounded game, put forth with serious consistency. “He’s got a major basketball IQ,” says Herrion. “We haven’t had to teach him much. That’s what separates him at this level. He’s very cerebral.”

Leissner keeps his own assessment simple. “I play hard, use my body well, stick to the fundamentals, and just use my knowledge of the game,” he says. “I want to be a coach, and I’ve picked up things from each coach I’ve had, along the way.”

He watches footwork of NBA forwards. “They’re so skilled, and so smart,” he says. “It’s amazing how much footwork can help you, making the next step as a player.”

According to Herrion, it’s consistency that sets Leissner apart. “As a true frosh, he did it right from the beginning,” Herrion says, noting the 17 and 6 Leissner dropped on Boston College in the season opener. “Most freshmen hit a wall, or go up and down throughout the year; Tanner didn’t. He had a great impact.”

Last season saw serious progress made. After going 6–24 in ‘13–14, UNH tied the program record for wins with 19, using a starting lineup that featured just one senior. Leissner led UNH in points (12.8), rebounds (7.5), and blocks (19 in 28 games), while shooting 45% from the field and hitting 26 threes at a 35% clip.

At 6–6, 210 pounds, Leissner has the perfect frame to exploit opposing defenses. “He’s that tweener, and he’s at the perfect level to use that,” says Herrion, who notes that aside from Stony Brook senior Jameel Warney, there aren’t many true posts in the America East.

“And,” Herrion continues, “Tanner’s bigger than you think. He’s not that tall, but he’s a thick 210. Just a strong kid. Any time you can get a four that can play inside-out, it puts a whole different emphasis on your offense. He can play back to the basket, but once he improves and becomes more consistent shooting the three, he’ll become really tough to handle.”

Herrion knows that teams will come after Leissner, now, so he’s spoken with him about getting stronger for the campaign ahead. Herrion wants to see him thrive inside-out, beating defenders off the dribble, making plays. “If he can add that,” says Herrion, “he’ll be really hard to guard.”

The Wildcats have built confidence from the season past. They know they can hang. Though they lost all three games they played against Albany, last season’s conference tournament winner, those three losses were by a combined five points.

This spring will mark New Hampshire’s sesquicentennial celebration as a school. The basketball team could pack some serious punch for that party.

As Leissner puts it, “We plan to make some noise.”

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops