Borrowing a bit from The Ringer’s exit interview series, now is the perfect time to look back on what went right and what went wrong with Southern Utah University’s Men’s Basketball team during the 2018-19 season.
Coach Todd Simon led the T-Birds (17-17) to their best finish since the 2006-07 season. SUU’s two CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament games make up two-thirds of the program’s postseason appearances since 1988.
What Went Right?
Well, a lot of things. Chief among them was the T-Birds’ impressive defense of their homecourt. SUU was 11-4 at home this season with wins against historically successful programs such as Drake, Weber State and Eastern Washington.
After losing their opening conference games to Montana State and Montana, SUU went 8-2 at home. The ability to take the next step forward will be built on the foundation of success the T-Birds had at home this year.
The big question coming into the season was how would Andre Adams and Cameron Oluyitan perform after their redshirt-transfer seasons. They responded well, as Oluyitan was named Co-Big Sky Newcomer of the Year and Adams helped SUU become the conference’s second best rebounding team.
Freshmen Harrison Butler (6.5 RPG) and Maizen Fausett (3.2 RPG in 13.1 MPG) also pitched in on the boards. They took on heavier workloads than expected after starters Dwayne Morgan and Jason Richardson were lost for the season.
Butler made an impact in every game he played. After he was introduced into the starting lineup on Feb. 4, it became clear that he would be the cornerstone of the future. Butler seemed to get better with every game and was completely unstoppable when posting up against smaller guards.
Brandon Better was also a revelation. In his senior season Better averaged 12.2 PPG and was an offensive spark all season long. While inefficient at times, Better had a knack for knowing when to take over the offense, something he only showed flashes of as a junior.
The defense was much improved. SUU finished second in the Big Sky in opposing field goal percentage because of Adams’ impact on the interior and Oluyitan, Butler and Dre Marin’s contributions on the perimeter.
Marin and Jacob Calloway were able to build upon last year’s performances and find consistent production all season long.
Marin was a lifesaver in close games. He was the go-to guy in key situations, and he deserved to be.
Calloway looked excellent in pick-and-pop situations and shot 38 percent from three on 136 attempts. Marin quietly shot 40 percent from beyond the arc. Both players took important steps forward.
Coach Simon was able to bring in SUU’s greatest collection of talent in the last twenty years, which led to huge wins in the conference tournament and a postseason appearance. With Montana’s reign of terror seemingly coming to an end, and every major contributor aside from Better set to return next season, Simon will have his eyes set on a Big Sky Championship.
What Went Wrong?
SUU had a historic season, but there is still some room for improvement. SUU finished in the middle of the Big Sky in most statistical categories. Their seventh-place finish was indicative of their performance on the road.
Winning on the road was rough for the T-Birds. Their 4-12 away record was among the worst in the Big Sky. The real separator between the Big Sky’s elite and the rest of the conference is winning away from home. Montana was 9-5 on the road last season and Northern Colorado was 11-5; they were undeniably the class of the conference.
Every Big Sky team is good at home, but only the best teams can consistently win behind enemy lines.
The T-Birds played far too many close games this season. The Big Sky breeds parity, but even games where SUU looked dominant ended up being close. Against Sacramento State, the Thunderbirds amassed a 41-18 lead going into half time, but only won the game by five points.
The T-Birds seemed to go into autopilot at times, and while the defense was improved, they seemed to lack intensity when the game felt in hand.
SUU missed a painful amount of free throws in key moments this season, but overall weren’t too bad from the line. It cost them against quality opponents like CSU Bakersfield, and will be something that needs tidying-up.
Overall, this season was a pretty good one, but there are issues that need fixing. Butler tearing his jersey in frustration against Bakersfield was not a great look. There were too many turnovers and not enough assists. They shot just 34 percent from three as a team.
These issues should at least be manageable reparations, though. Composure comes with time and Coach Simon has the program in a great position looking forward.
How to Fix It:
Priority One: Keep Andre Adams on the Floor
Adams fouled out of seven games last season and picked up an unfortunate reputation in the eyes of the referees. The Arizona State transfer could look at someone driving down the lane and pick up a foul call. Adams and Coach Simon need to work together to find ways to keep him on the court.
If SUU is going to reach their ceiling next year, Adams will need to play the best basketball of his life. Oluyitan and Marin thrive on managing pick and rolls. They’ll need an effective finisher around the rim to compliment their skilled perimeter movement
SUU’s defense also suffered every time Adams was on the bench. Even if he doesn’t block every shot, he alters looks around the rim and discourages penetration. SUU needs him to stay on the floor every second possible.
Priority Two: Find the Second Star
Oluyitan was the only player to receive postseason recognition from the Big Sky last season, being named to the Big Sky third team.
It will be difficult for the T-Birds to win next season if Marin, Adams, Butler or someone else doesn’t put in a first or second team all-conference performance. There are candidates galore, including (but not limited to) Iowa State transfer Jakolby Long, Utah State transfer John Knight III and Dwayne Morgan, who is returning from injury. Someone has to do it though, and they need to be a dominant force on the offensive end.
As outlined previously, SUU plays a lot of close games, and having a second star will be a huge help in muscling-out those close games. The T-Birds can employ a “close by committee approach,” but SUU needs to cultivate their staggering amount of high-major talent to challenge for the Big Sky crown.
Priority Three: Win on the Road
This feels like a simple thing, but it’s key to SUU’s success. They’ve proven that they can win at home and grab a couple of road victories. Now they need to win against lesser opponents in their gyms.
For reference, SUU lost to Idaho State, Northern Arizona, Portland State and Sacramento State on the road. The T-Birds proved that they are better than those teams in the conference tournament, but executing away from home is the next step forward.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what needs to happen to win on the road, but Coach Simon has shown he can prepare his team for any challenge. The team will be loaded with upperclassmen next season, and more experience will lead to more success on the road.
Final Verdict (TL;DR): This was the best season in recent history and the team is positioned well for the future. There is room to grow however, and the squad needs to make a few improvements in order to capture an NCAA tournament appearance next season.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication