Heading into his second season at the helm of the Thunderbird men’s basketball program, Todd Simon has a retooled roster, an exciting schedule and the Thunderbirds are ready to make a name for themselves in the Big Sky Conference.
With a season of experience in Cedar City under his belt, to go along with the wide range of experience he brought with him, Simon is excited to continue to build the Thunderbird program.
“Going into the second season there’s a dramatic change in the feel and culture of what we’re trying to do, and with returners and the already established way we do things it’s been pretty smooth,” he said. “In year one, you’re constantly establishing the hows and whys at every turn, and now in year two we’ve gotten to a place where guys know the expectation. They know exactly what we expect in the classroom, off the court, and in terms of the motor and mindset on the floor. So, now it’s become more about instruction and teaching, which is good.”
The Thunderbird schedule is stacked with big games and good competitions before the start of Big Sky Conference play. After an exhibition competition against Concordia at home in the America First Event Center on November 3, the T-Birds will open their regular season at Oregon State, before taking on Boise State two days later. SUU will open their regular season home slate against San Jose State on November 16.
“I’m very process oriented, so it’s one game at a time and this first one is where our preparation is focused,” he said. “From the players standpoint they always want to play the big games and we’ve scheduled maybe as difficult as this program has ever seen, in terms of Michigan State, Iowa, Oregon State, Boise State and UNLV. There’s a lot of games where we’re going to be David to a Goliath in this preseason, but we do it with the hope it will prepare us for league play because for us it’s about winning a league championship.”
Over the offseason the staff under Simon saw some changes. The result was the addition of Chris Pompey and elevating Trent Angelucci to Assistant Coach. Pompey was most recently a coach at Cal State Northridge and Angelucci was part of the Southern Utah staff last season. They also brought in Mike Nesbitt and Flynn Clayman as Special Assistants.
“Coach Pompey brings a wealth of experience, and he’s well connected throughout the entire nation in terms of his deep-seeded relationships in recruiting. He’s a guy that gets the most out of players because of his ability to mentor, so he brings quite a bit of value to us and we’ve seen a lot of great things from him already,” he said. “Elevating coach Angelucci with a year in the system, knowing how we do things and what we want to do, he works very, very hard, he’s very diligent, helps the players get better and has earned all of their respect, so it was a much earned position for him.”
Back for his senior season, James McGee is primed to be a veteran leader for the Thunderbirds. Last season at the Big Sky Tournament, McGee surpassed the 1,000 career point mark, and will look to continue to make it rain triples in the America First Event Center.
“James is a 1,000-point scorer, and a guy that people like to be around,” Simon said about the senior from San Clemente, California. “He’s got a great personality, he’s been able to blend with all of the new faces that have come through. He’s got a good, unifying trait about him and so as James has evolved in this process he’s been able to adapt and raise to the level of expectation that we have.”
Simon is excited about the group of guards the Thunderbirds have this year, and has been pleased with the way he’s seen them compete with each other.
“We’ve got a nice, competitive group,” he said. “Jadon Cohee is a tremendous competitor, Brandon Better is a little bit older, but he brings a competitive edge, and Dre Marin is as competitive as they come. With James, that’s a good quartet of guards that want to defend, that can make shots and are pretty well-rounded players. They all want to play the game the right way, share the ball and really be about the program. Those four give us a nice backcourt with competition at both spots.”
Following football season, the team will also be adding Taelin Webb to the roster. Webb is currently taking snaps at cornerback for the football team, but will trade turf for hardwood once the football season comes to an end.
“Hopefully football’s making a deep playoff run and we’ll probably get him closer to league play,” he said. “And it’s a different conditioning, football’s a stop-and-start sport where basketball’s kind of a free-flowing, up and down type of sport. So for him that will be a little bit of an adjustment, and getting caught up will be key because he’ll be a little bit behind on the playbook and concepts, and will have to shake the rust off a little bit. But, Taelin’s an exceptional athlete that’s a good team guy and brings a lot of value to our program.”
When it comes to forwards, Simon said he’s excited that there’s a lot of guys that play at a high level of basketball.
“We finally have some competition,” he said. “Jacob (Calloway) is kind of a walking bucket, he can score in a hurry and get hot, and he got a great amount of experience as a freshman learning on the fly and this year he had one of the better offseasons of anyone on our team, so the lightbulb is coming on in terms of everything else. So we have high expectations for Jacob. Joining him, Jamil Jackson will be a sophomore, he’s 6-6, super athletic, can make threes, he’s got the total package and as we continue to develop it his ceiling is as high as anyone on the team. Jordan Lyons can guard three or four positions on the floor, plays above the rim and once or twice a practice does something that makes you say ‘wow, where did that come from.’ He’s a stat sheet stuffer that will find his way on the floor just because of his attitude and effort. Matt Johnson is back, he’s bulked up this offseason adding a lot of muscle and will be able to get more physical and play some different positions for us at that forward spot, and we have Cam Oluyitan who has to sit out this season but fits that same mold coming from Boise State, and will be an outstanding player for two years for us when he’s eligible.”
Andre Adams, who will be a sophomore when he’s eligible to play, is sitting out this season due to transfer regulations, coming to Cedar City from Arizona State.
At the center position the Thunderbirds have brought in a transfer from Brigham Young University in Jamal Aytes, to go along with returners Christian Musoko, Ivan Madunic and Joel Swallow.
“Jamal has been nothing short of spectacular for us so far in terms of being a leader,” he said. “He’s a great kid that works really hard and is as strong as they come in our league, guys kind of bounce off of him, and he’s got a knack for scoring the ball around the rim. He’ll be a good weapon for us and we’re expecting a big season from him. Along with him, Ivan Madunic is back, who played a ton of minutes as a freshman but is a little bigger and stronger this year so expectations are going to be high. And Christian Musoko has found a renewed focus, he’s really dialed in on the court and in the classroom so those guys will give us a nice trio to compete with. And Joel Swallow, who redshirted last year, is in that group and continues to get better and push those guys every day in practice.”
Get a first look at the men’s team at the SUU Basketball Bash on October 25, an event that is free to the public.
SUU Athletic Strategic Communications