After renewing their coach and adding several talented transfers, Southern Utah’s men’s basketball team should expect vast improvement this year.
Head Coach Todd Simon’s team finished 13-19, and reached the semi-final of the Big Sky tournament where they lost a close game to Eastern Washington.
During that run the T-Birds flashed plenty of upside and upset Idaho and Idaho State. Now the challenge for Simon becomes converting that upside into a consistently winning team.
Southern Utah lost three of their best four frontcourt players from last season as Jamal Aytes and Christian Musoko graduated and Jadon Cohee moved on from the program. Veteran leader James McGee also graduated last spring.
So where does this leave this year’s rendition of the T-Bird squad? Due to the stellar and creative recruiting done by Simon and his staff, SUU welcomes Cameron Oluyitan and Andre Adams who are coming off of redshirts years due to transferring from Boise State and Arizona State respectively.
Dwayne Morgan and Brandon Better are among the team’s returning top scorers. Morgan was only allowed to play during conference play last season because of some strange transfer rule, but Morgan was the Thunderbirds’ best player at stretches during the season.
Simon is evolving the offense into a more modern positionless system where he can mix and match the best players given the situation without having to worry about specific offensive assignments.
Morgan will pair with Adams to form the perfect frontcourt for the free-flowing system Simon hopes to employ. Morgan is a solid passer and is working to add a longer jumper to his game. His athleticism also allows for him to defend multiple positions.
Adams will be the team’s truest rim protector and should anchor the defense at 6’9”. He should work well with Oluyitan, Better and Dre Marin in the pick and roll as a rim runner who can catch lobs.
Oluyitan will likely be the team’s primary playmaker. He spent his redshirt season playing point guard on the scout team. His ability to defend makes from some exciting small ball lineups where he can play the four and be surrounded by shooters.
Among those shooters is the super sub senior guard Better, who led the team in PPG last year in just 24 minutes per game. Better can create his own shot, but is not the strongest defender.
Marin is coming off of a spectacular freshman campaign, leading the team in steals. He has plenty of upside, but will need to be more consistent with his distribution as a second ball handler when Oluyitan sits.
Jacob Calloway and Ivan Madunic are both rotational players who can contribute in spurts. Calloway is one of SUU’s best catch and shoot threats, and is a versatile defender. Madunic was a surprising efficient 33% on three pointers last season, but needs to continue to pick his spots on when to launch open looks.
That makes for a seemingly a strong seven man rotation. That only means that freshmen Dato Aphkhazava, Kenton Eskridge, Maizen Fausett, Harrison Butler and Josh Cornish will compete to crack the rotation. If any of them can have a breakout season the way Marin did last year, it will push SUU to another level.
While there is much to be optimistic about, SUU finished in the bottom half of virtually every category in the Big Sky last season. Losing Aytes is no small thing, as he was one the most consistent scorers in the conference last year.
Simon is likely unfazed by the statistics. Since his arrival in 2016 the T-Birds have improved in the win column each year. The run to the Big Sky semifinals caught near everyone off guard, and inspired hope into the program.
With a team full of talent and potential, managing chemistry and minutes will be crucial. If Simon can steer the team toward the promised land, the Talented T-Birds might just have enough gas to make it there.
Their season begins Tuesday night with an exhibition match against Life Pacific at the America First Events Center at 6 p.m.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: SUU Athletics Strategic Communication