How does a team that finished 11-16 (5-9 Big Sky) and dead last in the conference one year become a fashionable pick to win the same conference a year later?
Men’s basketball head coach Heath Schroyer hopes he has found the answer in the talented blend of returning players and new recruits that will suit up against St. Martin’s for the season’s lone exhibition game tonight.
The repeal of limits on how many scholarships a school could give out and the graduation of most of the Big Sky’s top players has left the Big Sky filled with newcomers. Without doubt new stars will emerge, but PSU has a big advantage in that it will retain more of its core than any other Big Sky team by a significant margin.
Leading the way will be All-Big Sky and Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year fifth-year senior forward Seamus Boxley and All-Big Sky honorable mention guard Blake Walker. After averaging over 30 points and 15 rebounds a game together in their first season together last year, they are without doubt the most formidable returning duo in the league. If they can improve on consistency and maturity they will give the Viks a leg up over nearly all their Big Sky rivals.
Boxley says he has learned from three years of losses and is ready to assume the pressure that comes with stardom. “The biggest way that I’ve changed is my leadership,” he said, “trying to be a better leader, trying to prepare myself to give everything I can give to the school and to my teammates and lead us to a championship.”
Potentially overshadowed by PSU’s dueling stars are another pair of returning seniors, forward Antone Jarrell and guard Sheu Oduniyi. After a year of redshirting, Jarrell, a sculpted 6-7 leaper from Portland’s Jefferson High, played his way into shape over the first few months of last season, but as the season went on he displayed the passion and athleticism that could make him a breakout star this year. After averaging 7.6 points per game last year, Oduniyi could also surprise if he is able to shoot the ball like he did at the start of the season before getting derailed by injuries.
Will Funn, last year’s starting point guard (7.7 ppg, 4.0 apg), has the most to prove of the returning seniors. Funn came to PSU from San Bernardino JC with Walker last year and stepped into the starting role virtually unchallenged. While guiding a team with five new starters is never easy, Funn didn’t progress as many expected he would. The Vikings averaged the fewest points per game (67), turned the ball over more than any other team (17 turnovers/gm) and had the fewest assists (318) of any team in the Big Sky. If the Vikings are to live up to expectations this year they’ll need more from Funn and the point guard position. The coaching staff gave Funn an implicit challenge over the offseason by bringing in point guard Josh Neeley from Salt Lake CC and so far Funn has responded well.
In addition to the problems handling the ball, last year’s team struggled shooting the ball from outside (league worst 30.7 percent from 3-point) and was hurt by a shallow bench.
Neeley and Jake Schroeder, a pair of 6-2 junior college transfers from Utah, should help address both areas. They ranked second and third in their conference in assist to turnover ratio and were among the league leaders in all the offensive categories with Schroeder known as the sharp shooter and Neeley as the tough distributor. “We’ve got a good deal more outside shooting this year,” noted Gosar. “We’ve got the ability to spread the court so our offense will be a little bit more spread instead of just grinding it down into Seamus.”
Neeley has been slightly hobbled by an injured ankle and is still getting a feel for the new schemes but Schroeder has already lived up to Gosar’s expectations. “Jake is amazing,” he said. “He’s everything you want in a player and more.”
Also new to PSU are 6-7 forward Tyler Hollist, also from a Utah JC, 5-10 Dan Stock from Air Force and 6-11 Scott Morrison – the lone true freshman on the team.
Morrison is the youngest of the four big men the Vikings will rely on to fill the paint. Despite having played against mostly inferior Canadian competition, Morrison’s strong showing in practices and scrimmages has excited Gosar. “Scott has been a big surprise for me. He’s come in and played really well. He’s really come along and progressed a lot faster than we had expected.” Morrison’s development ensures he won’t just warm the bench his freshman year, “Scott has really come a long ways and he’s got a chance to help us out this year.”
Morrison will be joined on the low blocks by 6-9 Nguye “Bob” Kaladokubo, 6-11 redshirt freshman Marier (My-AIR) Angui and 6-7 junior Keith Sconiers, both eligible after not playing last year. For the Vikings to improve one of these four will have to step up, so far Sconiers – the strongest player on the team – has looked good and his hustle and muscle could earn him the bulk of the minutes.
In addition to helping the team survive foul trouble, Gosar is excited about the options the new depth will provide to the coaching staff, “We really get up and play hard defense, that’s the side of the ball we spend a lot energy on…With our depth this year we will be able to kick it ahead and run a little bit more because we can give guys rest.”
The players who scored 81 percent of PSU’s points and accounted for 75 percent of the minutes played this season are coming back. Compare those numbers with the league average of 45 percent of points returning and 51 percent of minutes played returning and the Vikings look pretty well off.
As important as the improved chemistry and new players are, whether or not this year’s team lives up to expectations will ride largely on the big shoulders of the returning core of Boxley, Walker, Jarrell, Funn and Oduniyi.
Schroyer is optimistic, “All the seniors have really grown up this year.”
Walker says only one thing is left, “Winning.”