Southern Utah Basketball is reaching its apex in terms of hype and anticipation before the 2019-20 season.
SUU is not a traditional basketball power. Still, head coach Todd Simon has assembled a group of talent never before seen at the Centrum, er, America First Event Center.
Every player on this roster is exciting, and how Simon will try to get the most out of each of them might be the most fascinating storyline to follow this season.
I don’t think many would argue that the T-Birds don’t have enough talent to win the conference. It’s a matter of execution and performance, and for the first time in a long time, SUU Basketball is a preseason favorite in the Big Sky.
The T-Birds were slated to finish fourth in the Preseason Coaches’ Poll and fifth by the media. There is so much potential with the batch of newcomers, that we need to meet this team one by one.
I by no means want to count the chickens before they hatch, but if there was ever and SUU athletics team to get excited about, this is it. Let’s profile each player, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the impact they’ll have on the team.
I’ve ranked these players in terms of “watchability,” and what I mean by that is how excited I am to see them perform. It doesn’t necessarily reflect how vital their role is, just how much fun they’ll be to watch.
1. John Knight III – Junior – Guard
18-19 Stats: 17.7 MPG, 7.8 PPG, 1.2 APG, 3.9 RPG (10 Games at Utah State)
Just watch this video of Knight alley-ooping himself from one step inside the free-throw line, and you’ll see why Knight is #1 on the list.
— Hoopmixtape.com (@Hoopmixtape) October 30, 2019
The former Utah State Aggie can fly, and he put up solid numbers in just ten games in Logan last season.
Knight is the team’s most explosive athlete, and how he meshes with Dre Marin in the backcourt will be key. Marin can defend the opposing team’s best guard, Knight can create with the ball in his hands and Simon can just run Marin off screens until his defender passes out.
If you don’t want to watch SUU basketball, then you at least need to stay up to date on his highlight reel this season. Simon needs the athleticism to translate to production, and given Knight’s enthusiasm to be a T-Bird (he had already dyed his hair red when he visited SUU last year), Knight is poised to have an All-Big Sky type of season.
2. Dwayne Morgan – R Senior – Forward
18-19 Stats: 22.5 MPG, 13.0 PPG, 1.0 APG, 4.8 RPG (only played four games before redshirting due to injury)
It’s strange to say this since Morgan has been around the program for over two years now, but this will be Morgan’s first full season as a T-Bird. He sat out most of 2018-19 with a shoulder injury and only played during Big Sky play two seasons ago.
Morgan is a former five-star prospect, and I’m ecstatic to see how Simon uses him. Morgan can stretch the floor, attack closeouts and carry the burden on offense. He’s a lanky defender who can handle most every defensive challenge when engaged.
Part of the reason I’m so excited to see the T-Birds is how long and switchable they will be on defense. Morgan is a prime example of the team’s defensive versatility.
Simon needs Morgan to stay healthy and engaged. All of his peers are signing max contracts in the NBA, and he’s still playing in the Big Sky. I think he’s mature enough to stay focused, but he’s been playing high-level basketball for a long time. That has to be exhausting on both mind and body.
3. Harrison Butler – Sophomore – Wing
18-19 Stats: 22.3 MPG, 10.3 PPG, 1.1 APG, 6.5 RPG
DUNKS. DUNKS. DUNKS.
Scary Harri is my favorite player in SUU basketball history, and I don’t think I’m alone in my homerism. Butler improved as the season went on, and Simon had no choice but to insert him into the starting lineup before season’s end.
His athleticism will prove invaluable because the team’s depth means Simon can press often. Butler reads passing lanes well and can explode into them for fast break opportunities.
Butler got to the line more than any player in the Big Sky last season. If he bumps up his FT%, he’ll be hard to keep out of the starting lineup.
I’m scared for Scary Harri, though. He let his emotions get away from him a time or two last year (see: ripping his jersey in half after fouling out vs. Cal State Bakersfield), and he’ll have to be very mature if he doesn’t get the minutes a player of his quality deserves.
There’s a lot of talented players on the team, and Butler is Simon’s key to the future. Still, he needs to embrace whatever role he’s given, even if that means coming off the bench.
4. Dre Marin – Junior – Guard
18-19 Stats: 30.3 MPG, 8.9 PPG, 3.0 APG, 3.2 APG, 3.2 RPG
Marin was Simon’s go-to option late in close games last season, and with good reason. The junior led the team in 3PFG% and hit huge shots against Weber State and Northern Arizona in crunch time last season.
Simon will stick Marin on the Jerrick Harding types, and there will be games where Marin doesn’t fill up the scoresheet but swings the outcome.
Knight will lessen his creative burden on offense, and I think they complement each other well. I can’t wait to see him hounding opposing ball handlers before they even cross halfcourt.
If he can recreate last season’s production while handling the ball a little less, then SUU will be in the running for the league title.
5. Daouda (David) N’Diaye – R Senior – Big
17-18 Stats: 18.05 MPG, 4.3 PPG, 0.40 APG, 4.0 RPG (sat out 18-19 after transferring from Illinois State)
N’Diaye is already a campus legend, and he hasn’t even played a minute. He’s got elite length for the conference and an uncommon motor.
He’s limited offensively, but Simon won’t need much more from beyond rolling hard and catching lobs off pick and rolls. He’ll be good for at least a couple of offensive rebounds per game.
My favorite David N’Diaye stat is that he averaged 1.19 BPG in just 17.2 MPG. He blocked a shot in 21 of 24 games and swatted six away in a game against Evansville.
His biggest impact might be as insurance for Andre Adams, who struggled with foul trouble all of last season. N’Diaye is an Ed Davis type. A ferocious rebounder and defender who will make the most out of every minute he plays.
6. Cameron Oluyitan – R Senior – Wing
18-19 Stats: 32.4 MPG, 13.1 PPG, 2.3 APG, 4.2 RPG
It’s strange to have Oluyitan outside of the top five, but that’s largely because he was consistent last season. Oluyitan is the team’s leading scorer among returners, and he might be the best offensive player on the team.
Oluyitan was named to the All-Big Sky third team and was co-Newcomer of the Year in the conference. Entering his senior season, he might be the team’s smoothest and most polished player.
He’ll likely guard the opponent’s best wing and uses his athleticism to keep his man in front well. His footwork is clinical, and his jump shot pure.
At times last season, Oluyitan wasn’t very aggressive, and I worry that he might get a bit passive when he plays with Morgan, Butler and Marin. He might not be the primary initiator of offense, but he can’t switch off this season.
7. Jakolby Long – Junior – Guard
17-18 Stats: 9.5 MPG, 1.9 PPG, 0.59 APG, 1.3 RPG (sat out 18-19 after transferring from Iowa State)
Long is interesting because before Knight transferred from USU, he was the clear counterpart to Marin in the starting lineup. He’s another creative offensive player who can knock down three-pointers.
At Iowa State, Long shot 43% from three, but only attempted 21. I see him expanding upon Brandon Better’s role off the bench from last season.
When games got murky, Simon would put the ball in Better’s hands and ask him to make something happen. Long is a good ballhandler and can knock down open looks, so he’ll get chances to lead the second unit.
Lineups with Long, Knight and Marin will launch the T-Birds into transition, and Simon wants to up the pace this season. If Butler doesn’t start, Long will be the first man off the bench.
8. Andre Adams – Senior – Big
18-19 Stats: 22.4 MPG, 9.8 PPG, 1.1 APG, 6.3 RPG
Adams played in every game for the T-Birds last season and needs to anchor the team on the defensive end. He is a good rim protector (finished 10th in Big Sky in blocks) and a constant communicator. You’ll hear his voice booming out orders ten rows into the stands.
He’s another candidate for offensive regression, just because a lot of his post touches will go to Morgan. That won’t lessen his impact much, as his ability to set screens and clog up the lane defensively are far more important than his points per game.
Adams and Butler led the team in rebounding, and closing out possessions will be key. If Simon is committed to running often, Adams will be left alone to grab contested rebounds often. He’ll be challenged to make good outlet passes and run the floor.
Having N’Diaye makes his foul troubles a bit easier to swallow, but the T-Birds struggled defensively when he wasn’t on the floor. He has to reign in his foul rate so that Simon can play him down the stretch.
9. Maizen Fausett – Sophomore – Big
18-19 Stats: 13.1 MPG, 4.5 PPG, 0.4 APG, 3.2 RPG
Fausett finds himself in a similar position as Butler. He’s obviously a centerpiece of the future, but there are so many talented upperclassmen on this team.
The West Lake High School grad found a niche as a good offensive rebounder and small ball five when Adams was in foul trouble. If Morgan had been healthy, Fausett might not have seen much playing time.
In a perfect world, Simon could redshirt Fausett and save a year of eligibility, but I think Simon wants to win now, and Fausett can contribute to that. He’s athletic and strong, and will be another beast in Simon’s press defense.
Of all the bigs on the roster beyond Morgan, I trust Fausett the most running in transition. Simon needs him to play hard no matter how much he plays and grab every offensive rebound he can. He’s overqualified as a ninth or tenth man, but Simon needs him to improve so he can become the starting power forward after Morgan, Adams and N’Diaye graduate.
10. Jarryd Hoppo – Freshman – Big
18-19 Stats: No stats, as he’s just a freshman.
Hoppo is a deadeye shooter and enticing offensive talent, but doesn’t quite have enough meat on his bones to bang with other power forwards. I see Hoppo as a prime redshirt candidate, but Simon may want to use his shooting now.
The Australian was the team’s most efficient shooter during the summer, and if he can hit threes during live games, Simon won’t keep him on the bench for long.
If Hoppo does play in 2019-20, I could absolutely see him nailing four threes in a half or something crazy, but he needs to get stronger so that he can see big minutes next season.
Imagine this: the 2020-21 T-Birds with Knight, Marin, Butler, Fausett and Hoppo as the starting five. That would be a fun team to watch this season. A year’s worth of progression could keep the team from dropping off after the five seniors graduate at the end of the season.
11. Josh Cornish – R Freshman – Guard
18-19 Stats: 3.3 PPG, 2.0 APG, 2.3 RPG
Cornish is another player who could shoot his way into the rotation. He redshirted because of a wrist injury after three games last season.
He’s a bit undersized to guard bulkier wings, so Simon will have to use him selectively on defense. The T-Birds can hide nearly anyone because of their versatile wings and depth in the frontcourt.
If Cornish has a role to play, it’ll come from beyond the three-point line. You can never have enough shooting, especially during the Big Sky Tournament.
On this team, Cornish is a luxury. He might not play every game, but Simon might have to turn to him if injuries or foul trouble plague the team.
He’s just the team’s seventh-best player with the ball in his hands (Knight, Marin, Oluyitan, Morgan, Butler, Long are probably better), so he might not see as much action as he’d like. Assuming he sticks around, he will be an important rotation option next season.
12. Ivan Madunic – Senior – Big
18-19 Stats: 11.7 MPG, 2.7 PPG, 0.4 APG, 2.9 RPG
I’m curious to see what Simon does with Madunic. The Croatian Devastation is the last player at SUU from Simon’s original recruiting class, but there are so many talented big men in front of him on the depth chart.
Madunic has not redshirted yet, and if everyone stays healthy, Simon might save his eligibility for next season. He’s a big body on defense and a can shoot the three a bit, so he’s worth keeping around.
He’s a great locker room guy and can lift the team’s morale even if he’s on the bench. Winning teams need off the court presences like Madunic.
13. Damani McEntire – Freshman – Guard
18-19 Stats: No stats, as he’s just a freshman.
McEntire is a walk-on from Indianapolis, Indiana. He’s a good athlete and a hard worker in practice.
The experience and talent ahead of McEntire make it hard to foresee him playing much. Still, the best teams find contributions from the margins. McEntire has a chance to develop his game and redshirt this year. Maybe he can carve out a rotation role next season.
14. Chase Verdugo – Freshman – Guard
18-19 Stats: No stats, as he’s just a freshman.
Verdugo is in the same boat as McEntire, but is an entirely different player. McEntire is a bit bulkier and can slash into the lane, whereas Verdugo is more of a pure shooter.
I don’t think we’ll see much of Verdugo this season, but things can change quickly. Everyone has to be ready to contribute.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos courtesy of SUU Athletics