Yes, it’s really time.
On Wednesday, Nov. 25, the Southern Utah University men’s basketball team will tip off the 2020-21 season against Loyola Marymount University at 6 p.m.
The game will take place in front of empty bleachers at LMU’s Gersten Pavilion in Los Angeles, Calif. The Lions are coached by former Thunderbird standout Stan Johnson, who played at SUU from 1998-02 and was team captain during his final season as a T-Bird. Johnson was a key rotation player on the 2000-01 team that won the Mid-Continental Conference and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the university’s lone appearance in the big dance.
Johnson will be coaching his first Division I game on Wednesday after stints as an assistant at Arizona State under Herb Sendek, Drake under Mark Phelps, and, most recently, Marquette under Steve Wojciechowski. The Lions finished 11-21 during the 2019-20 season with a 4-12 record in the West Coast Conference.
The Lions handled the Thunderbirds 61-51 when the teams clashed in Los Angeles on Dec. 1, 2019, and the Lions have won the last three matchups between the two teams.
LMU Scouting report:
Loyola Marymount sports one of the tallest rosters in the nation, with eight players who stand at 6’6″ or taller.
LMU is led by 6’6″ senior preseason All-WCC selection Eli Scott who averaged 15.5 PPG and 6.7 RPG last season. Scott led the team in points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, minutes per game, and field goal percentage last season as a junior, and will look to build on that campaign under Johnson’s tutelage.
Sophomore big Keli Leaupepe returns as the team’s second-leading scorer. Leaupepe is slightly undersized for his position, but is a physical presence in the post with a soft shooting touch. The Melbourne, Australia native averaged 10.2 PPG and 6.3 RPG and was named to the All-WCC freshman team.
Junior forward Parker Dortch (6’7″) led all scorers with 17 points off the bench when the teams met last season. Dortch figures to have a bigger role this season after averaging 5.6 PPG and 2.8 RPG in 2019-20.
Junior forward Ivan Alipiev (6’8″) and sophomore forward/center Lazar Nekic (7’0″) are both face-up bigs with range.
The Lions also have a trio of players returning to the lineup after sitting out the 2019-20 season.
Swedish redshirt senior center Mattias Markusson returns after earning All-WCC honorable mention during the 2018-19 season. Markusson stands at 7’3″ and averaged 10.2 PPG and 1.0 BPG in 2018-19.
Redshirt sophomore Dameane Douglas (6’7″) will lace up for the first time since suffering an injury that cost him the entirety of the 2019-20 season. When Douglas last played in 2018-19, he averaged 8.3 PPG and earned WCC All-Freshman honors.
The last player making his return is redshirt junior guard Joe Quintana, who started 17 games for LMU as a sophomore before losing the 2019-20 season due to injury. The 6’2″ guard averaged 7.5 PPG and finished fifth in the WCC with 1.5 steals per game in 2018-19.
While LMU has plenty of length, its depth at the guard position is severely limited behind Quintana. Scott will likely spend time as the point guard, meaning LMU could trot out lineups where their smallest player is 6’6″.
Scott will contend for a spot on the All-WCC first team again and feature in various roles offensively for the Lions.
The 2019-20 T-Birds:
Head coach Todd Simon enters his fourth season with hopes to build on a historic 2019-20 campaign where he led the T-Birds to a 17-15 overall record, the first time the team has finished above .500 since 2006-07. The team returns its starting backcourt with seniors John Knight III and Dre Marin. Key rotation pieces Harrison Butler and Maizen Fausett will feature more heavily after successful sophomore campaigns. Wednesday’s game will also mark the return of senior center Ivan Madunic, who redshirted during the 2019-20 season.
Sophomore guard Damani McEntire is the only other T-Bird returning this season after standouts Cameron Oluyitan, Andre Adams and Dwayne Morgan finished their careers at SUU last season.
Simon will lean heavily on transfer student-athletes to fill the void left behind by those starters.
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 and was a four-star recruit by both Rivals and 247Sports coming out of high school.
Aanen Moody, a redshirt junior 6’3” guard who transferred 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 team finished in seventh place in the Big Sky Conference and won its first-round matchup against the University of Idaho in the conference tournament before the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Keys to the game:
1. Make Life Miserable for Joe Quintana
LMU’s frontcourt is very talented and very tall. In a conference with the likes of Gonzaga University, Saint Mary’s College and Brigham Young University, they can hold their own in the post. It will be tough for SUU to match up with those big bodies in the post.
Where SUU has an advantage, however, is in the backcourt. Beyond Quintana, LMU doesn’t have much in terms of experienced ball handlers coming off the bench. If SUU could get Quintana or Scott in foul trouble, Knight, Marin and Moody could have an offensive feast against slower-footed wing defenders or inexperienced guards.
McEntire also may have a role to play in this contest. He’s a pesky defender that tallied 20 steals in just 140 minutes of on-court action last year, meaning he averaged one steal for every seven minutes played. If Simon wants to have someone out here to run Quintana and Scott ragged, McEntire is his guy.
2. Defending the Post
Madunic (6’11”), Spurgin (6’11”), Cooper (6’9″) and Jones (6’7″) are the only players listed on SUU’s roster as taller than 6’6″. Defending the post could be challenging in this contest, especially if Madunic finds himself in foul trouble. Spurgin and Cooper are still a bit raw, and if SUU needs to play extended minutes without Madunic, Simon may turn to the 6’6″ Fausett at center.
That could pose trouble against a team as long and physical as LMU. Could Simon consider mixing in zone schemes to shore up the middle of his defense? It’s an intriguing prospect, and it could make it easier to deploy Moody and Marin at the same time without losing much perimeter defense.
SUU may counter LMU’s size with speed and pace. If that’s the case, Fausett and Butler will be asked to do a lot on the boards. Time will tell if they’re up to the task.
3. Remember the Point
In this pandemic-shortened season, just the chance to play non-conference games at all is an opportunity that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Johnson’s history with SUU may have played a role in the T-Birds being able to play this game at all, so SUU should approach this game as a chance to measure themselves against top-flight competition.
Simon will know a lot more about his team on Thursday morning than he does now, and just seeing where the guys are is essential. SUU begins conference play against the University of Montana on Dec. 3, and this game should be seen as preparation for that contest. Simon will always expect his team to do everything it can to win, but in the entire context of the season, this game won’t matter much. The starting and crunch time lineups are likely to change. Players may miss time to COVID-19 or other injuries. Maybe the season will end up getting canceled altogether if the nationwide surge in cases continues.
But none of that matters right now. All that matters is that SUU men’s basketball will play a competitive game on Wednesday. With the times we’re living in now, that alone is worth celebrating.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Image Courtesy of: Loyola Marymount Athletics