The 2021-22 season is finally over for Southern Utah University men’s basketball—getting eliminated in the semi-finals of The Basketball Classic by Fresno State University on Tuesday, March 28. The loss brings a close to another successful season from Head Coach Todd Simon and his team.
This group has had a challenging year with injury and illness which makes me even more proud of their accomplishments!
⚡️2nd most wins in D1 era
⚡️1st back to back 20 win seasons
⚡️3rd postseason invite
⚡️2nd postseason win
⚡️Most Big Sky wins & 2nd place
⚡️1st MTE Championship
— Todd Simon (@CoachTsimon) March 17, 2022
The Thunderbirds finished their season 23-12 overall and 14-6 in the Big Sky Conference. After they were eliminated from the conference tournament in the quarterfinals by Portland State University, SUU was invited to participate in TBC for their third-ever postseason appearance.
The season saw many impressive milestones for Southern Utah in their final season as a part of the Big Sky. Guard John Knight III and forwards Maizen Fausett and Harrison Butler all hit 1,000 career points as a Thunderbird. This group joined guard Dre Marin who hit the mark last season. Marin hit a milestone as well when he set the record for most games played in Big Sky history.
The Thunderbirds finished the season with the No. 21-ranked offense in NCAA Division I as they averaged 77.1 points per game. Their 23 wins were the second most in program history behind the 2000-01 squad that won 25 games. This was also the first time SUU has ever won 20 games in back-to-back seasons.
Looking at these accomplishments makes it clear that this squad got a lot done. It is time to look at how the season ended the way it did.
Southern Utah did not feature many surprises this season because they had very few new players. The newest face to see significant minutes this season was center Jason Spurgin. Spurgin appeared as a freshman in 14 games with one start in the 2020-21 season but averaged just over five minutes per game. This season, the sophomore from Toowoomba, Australia started all 35 games — the only player to do so — and became the player many have thought he could be.
In the season preview, Coach Simon gushed about Spurgin’s development since the end of last season.
“[Spurgin] added 20-30 pounds and has really emerged as a core player this offseason,” he said. “His development has been as big as anything for our team because he gives us that 6’10” presence. We think he is going to be terrific.”
While it took him a while to hit his stride, Spurgin added a new dimension to SUU’s offense. His highest-scoring output of the season was his 22 points in a loss to the University of Northern Colorado in February but there is no reason to believe Spurgin cannot be SUU’s best weapon next season.
At 6’10” Spurgin has a wingspan that is too long for most other players to defend. That combined with his polished footwork in the paint makes him almost unstoppable near the basket. More time in the weight room will lead to him becoming a stronger rebounder and finisher but it is clear that his potential is through the roof.
The Thunderbirds accomplished a lot this season but failed to complete the main goal they set out for: winning the Big Sky Championship. After winning the regular season last year and losing to Montana State University in the semi-finals, taking home the trophy this season was on everybody’s minds.
The Thunderbirds were voted as the 2021-22 preseason favorites by both Big Sky coaches and the media. Additionally, guard Tevian Jones was awarded the preseason MVP. Last season’s success and the attention over the offseason led to extremely high expectations for SUU. In other words, it was championship or bust.
Bad luck struck at the worst time for SUU as Jones fractured his wrist just a week before the Big Sky tournament. Days before the game, Marin came down with an illness that caused him to be a gametime decision against Portland State. He still played but obviously was not himself as he shot 4-14 from the field and 1-6 from three. On top of that, Knight dealt with a nagging hip injury that limited his athletic ability.
All of this and the simple fact that the Thunderbirds seemingly did not look ready to play in the quarterfinals led to them getting upset by the No. 7 seed 77-65. Credit the Vikings’ defense who forced SUU to commit 13 turnovers and did not allow a three-pointer until there were four minutes remaining in the game.
There is plenty to be happy about for SUU basketball this season. But ultimately getting bounced in the quarterfinals will be a blemish too big to overlook when looking back at this team. The team’s appearance in The Basketball Classic will alleviate some of the pain but was not what they set out to accomplish.
Winning over 20 games is no easy feat. This was a talented squad that featured talent from top to bottom. Four players averaged double digits in scoring and they were able to snag a postseason appearance and win multiple tournament games.
Every player had their ups and downs throughout the season but the most consistent of the bunch was none other than Fausset. He averaged 11.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game on his way to becoming SUU’s all-time leader in rebounds. Fausett was named to the All-Big Sky Third Team for his efforts on the year.
Fausett’s greatness comes in the areas that do not show up in the box score. Oftentimes he is the one who boxes out opponents and opens up offensive rebounds for his teammates or being tasked with defending the opposing team’s best player. Regardless of what he is asked to do, he gets it done.
Fausett was also third on the team in minutes played and could score at an efficient 49% clip. He does not necessarily do anything better than anyone else but he can do more than anyone else. Because of his versatility, he is no doubt the Most Valuable Player.
Outlook for next season
Southern Utah now faces a lot of change going forward. With Marin and Knight having exhausted their eligibility, they will not return next season. Fausett and Butler both have one year of eligibility left but the decision to use it is up to them.
Important bench players Marquis Moore and Dee Barnes have already entered the transfer portal, so there is a chance that Spurgin is the only returning contributor next season. Not only could the roster look a lot different, but SUU will also leave the Big Sky and become members of the Western Athletic Conference next year.
“You love these guys to death and that’s the hard part,” said Simon after the tournament loss to Portland State. “You start seeing some guys’ careers coming to an end. We have eight guys who could graduate.”
Regardless of who returns next year, it is impossible to understate how important this core of players have been for Simon and the Thunderbirds.
“The legacy here that they’ve created here at Southern Utah is something that we are really proud of. This group is going to be known as the one that put us on the map,” said Simon. “Culture never graduates and that’s something that we’ve established.”Whatever happens, it is a surefire bet that Simon will enter the WAC with a roster that is ready to compete and a culture and identity that have been established for the future.
Story by: Christian Esparza
Photos Courtesy of SUU Athletics