After beating the University of Idaho in the first round of the Big Sky Conference tournament, the 2019-20 season came to an anticlimactic end for the Southern Utah University men’s basketball team.
Momentum was building after the T-Birds ended the regular season with their first win against the University of Montana since 2000, but that momentum halted when the Big Sky tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The team returned home to self-isolation and thoughts of what might have been.In the end, there was nothing left to do but move on and focus on the future.
“We made the best of the situation,” head coach Todd Simon said in an interview. “At the end of the day, a little extra family time isn’t the end of the world.”
Simon lamented losing the final games of SUU standouts Cameron Oluyitan, Dwayne Morgan, Andre Adams and David N’Diaye, but said the experience taught him, “a greater appreciation for being allowed to coach.” He returns to the court with a new-look roster and an even greater sense of urgency for the 2020-21 season.
Simon said that his staff and group of players, “appreciates just being able to be in the gym” and that they’re “not taking practice for granted.” He describes the roster as “an outgoing and friendly bunch” that is “very close already.”
A season full of uncertainty awaits as the T-Birds tip off the season against Loyola Marymount University on Wednesday, Nov. 25. The T-Birds will play six non-conference games and 20 against Big Sky opponents. Players practice with maks on as the COVID-19 pandemic looms over the entire sport. Outbreaks could potentially sideline key players throughout the year.
This will be a season truly unlike any other, and Simon and his staff are preparing for anything that comes their way. This season will likely be grueling physically and mentally for both coaches and players, and Simon is making mental health a priority for the program.
“As much as we talk about recovery and ice baths for your legs and stretching, we need to talk about the mental aspects too,” Simon said. “We have to continue to have conversations and be in the know with how our guys are feeling and where their heads are at.”
The team will be led by two senior guards, four-year starter Dre Marin and former Utah State transfer John Knight III, as Simon continues his pursuit of a Big Sky conference championship.
“I think having anything short of championship aspirations would be selling ourselves short,” Simon said. “We’re shooting for the top and putting in the work to try and achieve that goal.”
But reaching that goal, especially during a pandemic altered season, will require everyone to buy into their role on the team, Simon said.
“[Establishing roles] is always tricky, but especially so during a pandemic when guys may or may not be in and out of the lineup,” Simon said. “We’re just going to have to solidify our identity and make sure all of our roles are bought into… There’s going to be some fluidity to this season, I believe.”
Here’s a comprehensive look at how the 2020-21 season will shake out for the T-Birds.
The Building Blocks:
Simon led SUU to what may have been the best season in the school’s history aside from when the T-Birds made the NCAA tournament in 2000-01. The team finished the regular season with a 16-15 record, the first time the team entered the postseason with a record above .500 since the 2006-07 season.
Last season the T-Birds finished third in the Big Sky in scoring defense, only allowing 66.3 PPG. The team had the best rebounding margin in the conference and finished tied for first in blocks per game with 4.1.
The T-Birds were very tough defensively behind the size of Adams (6’9”), Morgan (6’8”) and N’Diaye (7’0”). Even Oluyitan, who was listed at 6’7”, provided solid length on the wing.
Replacing their rim protection will not be easy, but a roster with more pacey wing options may allow Simon to open things up more offensively.
“Our philosophy is always defend, rebound and run,” Simon said. “Last year, we didn’t run off of made baskets quite as much with all of our size… We’re going to have lineups where every one of the perimeter players is labeled a shooter on the scouting report.”
Marin and Knight make up a seasoned, dynamic backcourt that Simon will rely on as the offensive engine. Knight led the team in assists last season and averaged 12.6 PPG, making him the team’s highest returning scorer. He will set the tone for the team offensively, and Simon said that he’s shooting the ball better from 3-point range, filling one of the few holes in his offensive arsenal.
Knight is a game-breaking offensive player. His athleticism unlocks defenses, and his playmaking will be critical for the T-Birds, who struggled at times to score when opponents packed the paint to prevent Knight from getting into the lane.
Marin shot 35% from behind the 3-point line last season, and he will be vital in ensuring that Knight has enough space to operate. The Glendale, Ariz., native will also play a key role as a leader in the locker room.
Harrison Butler and Maizen Fausett return for their junior seasons and will likely see increased roles as upperclassmen. Fausett started 19 games last season as a versatile power forward who can step out and knock down jump shots. Butler is a gifted athlete who is at his best when he’s getting into the lane and to the free-throw line.
Butler and Fausett, close friends off the court, were the only T-Birds outside of Oluyitan to play in all 32 games last season. Fausett led the team in total rebounds with 183, and Butler wasn’t far behind with 179. Their ability to clean the glass will be essential in the absence of Adams and Morgan.
Fifth-year senior Ivan Madunic returns to the floor after redshirting last season because of the frontcourt log jam. Madunic looks to be in great shape and will likely have every chance to secure the starting center position after his unselfish decision to sit out last year. Madunic provides rim protection (0.6 BPG in 2018-19) and a little bit of perimeter shooting (28% 3PFG in 2018-19) to the squad.
The last returning player from last season is sophomore guard Damani McEntire, a lockdown defender who reportedly made significant strides offensively over the summer. McEntire played 140 minutes in 21 appearances for the T-Birds and had 20 steals on the season, averaging one steal every seven minutes.
The New Pieces:
As is tradition at this point, SUU added a fresh new batch of talent through the transfer portal in the offseason.
Tevian Jones, a junior 6’7” wing from Illinois, headlines the group. Jones is a “super talented, multi-dimensional, high-level scorer,” Simon said. He appeared in 13 games for the Illini during the 2019-20 season, but missed significant time due to a suspension because of “violation of team academic policies.”
Jones was a huge get for Simon, and he’ll feature as a key member of the rotation from day one. He brings scoring, but will be asked to contribute defensively as well, and why not when he can make plays like the first one in this video:
Highlights of @SUUBasketball newest signee 6’7” Tevian Jones. Transferring from Illinois and graduating from Culver City HS @TheReal_TJones is gonna be fun to watch for T-Bird basketball fans‼️⚡️#Tbirdnation pic.twitter.com/mlwWCyNqND
— Flynn Clayman (@coachclayman) June 26, 2020
If Jones can knock down 3-pointers and bring it defensively, he could well earn a spot in Simon’s starting lineup. Massive upside here.
Aanen Moody, a 6’3” guard transferring from the University of North Dakota, will also play a key role in Simon’s offensive plans. Moody shot 41% from three during his first season at UND, but only played in nine games last year due to injury.
Moody may well be the best scorer on the team. His ability to space the floor makes him a brilliant fit next to Knight, but he’s not just a spot-up shooter. Moody is very crafty with the ball in his hands, using slight feints and hesitations to get to the basket.
“As soon as that ball touches his fingertips, it’s into the air and into the net quick,” Simon said. “We haven’t had that type of shooting here for a couple of years…. Teams are going to have to faceguard him, otherwise he’s going to throw in a bunch of threes.”
Courtese Cooper, a 6’9” transfer from Louisiana State University, will likely play an important role in the rotation. Cooper is a redshirt junior with a 7’5” wingspan. Simon said Cooper can, “change the game on the defensive end with his length, but can also run the floor.”
Dee Barnes, 6’4” junior from Mount St. Mary’s University, and Marquis Moore, 6’6” junior from the University of Detroit Mercy, have not yet been ruled eligible to compete this season, but will contribute in SUU’s future.
Simon also brought in a pair of Australian recruits that could play meaningful minutes for the T-Birds this season. The first is Jason Spurgin, a 6’ 11” center from Toowoomba, Australia. Spurgin is a strong presence inside and is skilled in the post, though he may need more time to develop physically.”
“He could go down as one of the better big men when it’s all said and done here at SUU,” Simon said. “He’s got huge upside, he works really hard, and we’re really excited about him.”
The other is Kingsley Box, a 6’5” guard from Melbourne, Australia. Box is a sharpshooter with a high basketball IQ, according to Simon. While he may not be the first name called from the bench, he could play a role as a floor spacer in smaller lineups.
Highland Community College transfer Nick Fleming could feature as the backup point guard. Simon said Fleming hit 40% of his threes last season and that he, “gives a different look at the point guard position.”
The other newcomers, 6’3” freshman guard Martel Williams and 6’2” senior guard Darnell Latham Jr., may have bit roles to play if Simon needs to go deep into the bench, but may not be able to crack the crowded rotation.
Keys to Success:
SUU was picked to finish sixth by the media and seventh by the coaches in the preseason Big Sky conference polls. If SUU wants to outperform those expectations, here are some key areas of focus.
1. Defending the Paint
Driving into the paint against SUU last season meant trying to finish over one of Adams, Morgan or N’Diaye. Those are some tall trees to drive into, and their collective presence at the heart of the defense will be missed.
Madunic and Cooper certainly bring a ton of length, but may be somewhat limited offensively. Spurgin is skilled, but will likely need time to adjust to the speed and physicality of the Division-I game.
With the collection of offensive talent Simon has on the roster, there may be plenty of lineups where Fausett, who is listed at 6’6”, is the tallest player on the court.
Fausett is a great rebounder, but he lacks the length to deter shots at the rim. If Madunic, Cooper and Spurgin don’t provide enough offensively to justify staying on the court, Fausett could see extended time at the five.
Madunic deserves credit for returning to SUU and has nights where he can really fill it up from three. However, he can look like a deer in the headlights if he picks up the ball too far from the basket at times, and his ability to space the floor is useless if Simon can’t trust him to keep the ball moving.
Cooper is a good rim runner, but doesn’t offer much on that end of the floor beyond his ability to roll.
If injuries cut into SUU’s depth, or if these three players fail to stake their claim as essential members of the rotation, SUU could be vulnerable defensively.
Look for Simon to institute some zone defense schemes to account for this and to get more offensive weapons onto the floor at once.
2. Spacing and Offensive Flow
Toward the end of last season, opponents tried to slow down SUU’s offensive potency by sagging perimeter players off their man to congest the lane.
Outside of Oluyitan and Adams, no one consistently created open looks when the lane was plugged up. Knight especially struggled to get things going when the game slowed down, and less ball-dominant players like Marin, Fausett and Butler struggled to find the space Knight usually manufactured for them off of a drive and kick.
Spacing was a big priority for Simon coming into the season, and the introduction of Moody and Jones will force defenders to extend out to the three-point line, spreading things out for Knight.
“We just think that one shooter on the floor changes the entire dynamic of how a team has to guard you, and we think now there’s going to be a lot of lineups with three or four real shooters on the floor,” Simon said. “You’re going to have to respect everybody.”
Generating and knocking down open looks will be crucial for SUU this season. When the game slowed down last season, the ball tended to stagnate with one player, often Knight or Morgan, trying to isolate and find a bucket. There will be some possessions where that is the best approach, but a more motion-oriented system suits the team better this season.
Knight won’t have to do everything offensively when things break down anymore. Moody and Jones can both get their own shot. Butler and Fausett are a year more experienced, and hopefully more confident to score in big moments.
Avoiding the congested defenses they had to wade through last season will make life so much easier for SUU, and making 3-pointers and keeping the ball moving will be the best ways to ensure that defenses stay extended and exposed.
3. Closing Games and Adjusting on the Fly
There are seven players (Knight, Marin, Butler, Fausett, Jones, Moody, Madunic) who have a legitimate claim to one of the five spots on the floor at the end of close games. Sorting out those final minutes will be a headache for Simon and his staff.
Knight and Marin seem like shoe-ins to play in clutch moments because of their experience. Who should Simon turn to with the final three positions? Should he take it on a game by game basis, or choose five guys to roll with no matter the situation?
Simon could go small on some nights and play Knight, Marin, Moody, Butler and Fausett. He could go big on others and play Knight, Marin, Jones, Fausett and Madunic.
Either way, two of those guys will have to sit, and Simon will have to be careful in managing the players who have to watch the ends of games from the sideline. There is no room for locker room contention on this tight schedule, and the surplus of trustworthy players could make things complicated for Simon.
SUU will also play its Big Sky opponents in consecutive contests rather than playing each team home and away throughout the season as in years past. Giving teams enough of a new look to beat them just a couple of days after playing them for the first time will prove difficult. This is where players like Fleming, Box and Spurgin could make a big impact.
“This is a fun group to get behind,” Simon said. “I think they’re going to really surprise some people this year. We have a group that’s made right in terms of working as a team. They share the ball and they do all the unselfish stuff it takes to have a really fun year.”
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: Mitchell Quartz