The inherent challenge and benefit of college athletics is how quickly rosters can turnover. Each player gets four years of eligibility, no matter how much they might mean to the program.
That makes it hard to assemble long term dynasties, but also gives teams without much tradition of winning to turn things around quickly.
For Southern Utah men’s basketball head coach Todd Simon, the process of losing players has been bittersweet. Enticing new talents like University of Central Florida transfer Yuat Alok can completely alter the shape of a team from season to season, but they come at the cost of losing key players to graduation.
Many coaches feel a special attachment to the first group of players they bring in after taking a new job. Coaches are happy to mold the players at their new university, but the first group of players who buy in and commit to helping the coach build a program are invaluable.
The 2019-20 class of graduates is Simon’s version of that group. Dwayne Morgan, Andre Adams and Cameron Oluyitan were among the first players to commit to Simon’s vision for SUU. This was the core of players that arrived after the team went 6-27 in Simon’s first year at SUU, and they’ll leave the program after leading it to its first .500 finish since 2006.
Other players from the initial recruiting class have come and gone, including Brandon Better and Jacob Calloway, but the three listed above hold special weight in the program.
All three had to spend time sitting out due to transfer rules. They watched the team limp to a 5-13 conference record. Then they, hand in hand with Simon, corrected SUU’s decade-long deviation from course.
“We had a big task at hand when they committed,” Simon said. “It took a lot of faith from those guys to believe we could build what we have.”
In the four seasons before Simon arrived at SUU in 2016, the T-Birds were 29-90. In the three seasons since Morgan, Adams and Oluyitan have been with the team the T-Birds are 45-50.
That’s unprecedented improvement, especially for a school whose athletics are far from its highest priority. Simon asked these players to buy in, and their tenaciousness in accepting that invitation will ripple through the program for at least the next five years.
Simon deserves a lot of credit for finding and convincing these players to come to SUU, but they were the ones who actually had to bring the vision to fruition on the court.
Morgan, a former five-star recruit who initially committed to UNLV, was the first one eligible to play midway through the 2017-18 season. The Baltimore, MD native has averaged 10.5 PPG at SUU. His first child was born during his time at SUU, and his connection to Cedar City will forever run deep.
“We all came from other programs before SUU,” Morgan says, in reference to Adams and Oluyitan. “It’s not a coincidence, and it made me want to leave a lasting impression on the fans.”
Adams found his way to SUU after an injury derailed his relationship with the coaching staff at Arizona State University. The 6’ 9” center has led the T-Birds in rebounding the last two seasons and has 9.4 PPG during his time at SUU.
“This has been unforgettable,” Adams said. “I’ve been blessed to be a part of this team. We were meant to be here for a reason.”
Oluyitan was named Big Sky Conference Co-newcomer of the year after transferring from Boise State University. The wing has been the T-Birds’ go-to-guy on offense, leading the team in PPG during both of his seasons at SUU.
“It’s been a great experience,” Oluyitan said. “[Morgan and Adams] are like my brothers. They made it what is was, and it was so much fun.”
While SUU may not reach the NCAA tournament heights they had set out for at the beginning of the season, these three players have set the table for the future of SUU basketball.
All three players are mature, passionate individuals who sacrificed opportunities at larger establishments for a chance to build something new at a school who had won just two games three years prior to their arrival.
Their short stays at SUU will limit their impact on the record books, but they signify an important changing of the guard for T-Bird basketball. Only two games and the conference tournament remain before they’ll have played their final game in a Thunderbird uniform.
It’s a melancholy feeling for players and fans alike. Morgan, Adams and Oluyitan have made an irreplaceable contribution to the program. They’ll miss their time at SUU, but they’ll never forget what they learned under Simon. Simon wonders if he learned more from them.
“I learned that you just have to keep staying together and listening to each other,” Simon said. “These are very intelligent guys… We’re fortunate that they came here.”
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: Mitchell Quartz