After taking a few days to digest the loss to Butler and to soak in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, I began to write a detailed blog-post about the WU team heading into next season, and to determine just what this program will look like when Keon Johnson isn’t on the court anymore. Then, as I was in the middle of writing the post, Pat Kelsey took the UMass job…then came back to WU a couple of days later. Around that same time, Duby Okeke and Patrick Fisher both transferred out of the program. So I took some time away from looking forward to next season as half of the roster was up in the air, and I was still trying to digest the whole Kelsey/UMass story. But things have settled down over the last couple of months. Kelsey didn’t jump ship to another job as some people worried he might do. And the program finished up signing its recruiting class in April & May. So we now at least know the names of the people on the roster (even if there may be a lot of questions about how the pieces will fit together, and which of the new guys will be able to contribute right away).
As a quick recap, WU lost five scholarship seniors from this past season’s team. Besides Keon Johnson, WU needed to replace Josh Davenport, Rod Perkins, Tevin Prescott, and Hunter Sadlon on the roster. Keon is obviously the headliner, but Davenport, Perkins, and Prescott all played right around 20 minutes/game. Sadlon’s value to the team was primarily in practices. Also, as mentioned above, Duby Okeke and Patrick Fisher decided to transfer, with Okeke landing at Nebraska, and Fisher heading back home to play at San Diego State. Okeke didn’t play huge minutes for WU, but his size/presence in the paint on the defensive end was big for the Eagles at times. Fisher barely played in his freshman season due to illness.
Returning Players (Roles Already Defined):
This first group of players are the three guys expected to return who have been key parts of the rotation already, so we have a pretty good feel on what they can (or can’t) do…
-Xavier Cooks, senior – Most programs that lose a Keon Johnson-type of player would be panicking about who they will turn to for buckets the following season. Luckily for WU, Cooks will be back for his senior season, and he was already a ‘1b’ to Keon’s ‘1a’ when it came to who was the primary weapon on the Eagles this past season. Cooks is as versatile as it gets for a 6’8″ player, and his production on the boards had a decent uptick this past year to where he’s now a regular double-double machine, especially against Big South foes. The offense runs through him at times anyway, and I’d expect that to increase a bit next season. As long as he can stay on the court (avoiding injuries and foul trouble, personal and/or technical), he’ll put up numbers that will put him in the running for Big South Player of the Year. The interesting scenario will come with end-game situations. Keon Johnson was the focal point almost every time WU needed a bucket late in the game. Will Cooks take over that role? Or will that go to someone else (or be handled by committee)?
-Anders Broman, senior – I will admit, I was a little skeptical when Coach Kelsey brought Anders into the program after he had a couple of rather nondescript seasons at South Dakota State. But after about a month of adjusting to being back on the court again, he was a key part to WU’s offense this past season, often hitting big buckets late in games to lift the Eagles to wins. Obviously his biggest strength is his spot-up three point shooting, but he showed a few flashes of being able to get buckets off the dribble, something we may see a little more next season. He’s not one of the better defenders on the roster, though, and that will keep him off the court at times, but we’ll likely see big minutes for him in his senior season, and he has a decent chance at being the team’s second leading scorer behind Cooks.
-Bjorn Broman, junior – In his first two seasons, Bjorn averaged 27.9 minutes/game. That’s more than Keon Johnson averaged in his first two seasons, and more than Xavier Cooks. In fact, from what I can tell, you have to go back to Chris Gaynor to find a WU player who averaged more minutes in their freshman/sophomore seasons. That is to say, Coach Kelsey is comfortable with putting Bjorn on the court. Bjorn’s biggest contributions in his first two seasons have been in handling the ball, taking some of the allowing Keon to conserve some energy at times, and in being a pretty solid perimeter defender. His shooting numbers improved from his first year to his second, but there are many games in which he doesn’t take many shots, and oddly, he seems to shoot much better on the road than at home (after scoring double-figures in his first two home games of his freshman season, Bjorn has only scored in double-figures once in his last 30 home games…yet he has nine double-digit scoring games on the road in his career). Expect they younger Broman to continue to get plenty of minutes, but it will be interesting to see if he becomes a bit more assertive, and more potent, on the offensive end this season with Keon gone.
Returning Players (Roles Expected to Expand in 2017-18):
These three returning scholarship players will likely play bigger roles on the team than they have in the past.
-Adam Pickett, junior – In two seasons, Pickett has been a feast or famine type of energy guy off the bench. Some games, he’ll come in, make a few steals, get in transition, and make some impressive finishes around the basket. In others, he’ll turn it over a couple of times, commit a couple of fouls, and never be seen again. When he plays well, he’s a very dynamic weapon for the Eagles on both sides of the court. He should get an opportunity to play more minutes this year, provided that he can limit the turnovers that lead to easy baskets on the other end.
-Josh Ferguson, sophomore – Ferguson had some nice moments as a freshman, especially early in the conference schedule when he got quite a bit of playing time off the bench. He showed a pretty good shooting touch (especially from the free throw line) and looked willing and able to battle on the boards. Like most young players, he hit a bit of a wall as the season went along, and WU relied more on the steady veteran presence of Tevin Prescott as the calendar turned to February and March. But he should be able to bring some decent size and athleticism to WU’s front-court this year, and with Prescott and Okeke no longer around, he has every opportunity to earn plenty of playing time.
-Raivis Scerbinskis, freshman – Scerbinskis is essentially a newcomer, as he redshirted last season and has not played a minute of Division I basketball yet. But the one advantage he holds over the group below is that he has spent a whole season practicing with the team, learning the system, and adjusting to life away from Latvia. At 6’8″, he should be able to stretch the floor for the Eagles with his shooting ability, but it remains to be seen what else he’ll contribute to the team.
This is one of the largest incoming classes in recent WU history, with seven new scholarship players joining the roster for the 2017-18 season. If WU wants to return to the NCAAs, you’d have to think that at least a couple of these guys will need to be able to make an immediate impact. I won’t pretend that I know much about any of them, or even begin to guess where they’ll fit into the rotation this season.
-Jermaine Ukaegbu, junior – Ukaegbu spent his freshman season at Sacred Heart, playing about 7 minutes a game before leaving to play his sophomore year at Indian Hills Community College (a JUCO power that essentially has an entire roster of players that will end up playing D1). His offensive numbers won’t wow you, but he appears to have great athleticism, can rebound well, and should help fill some of the shot-blocking void left by Duby’s departure, even though he’s ‘only’ 6’6″. (Ukaegbu’s YouTube Highlights)
-Nych Smith, junior – Like Ukaegbu, Smith also has spent his season at the D1 level (at Fordham), and then played last season at the JUCO level for Florida Southwestern State. Smith’s a 5’10” point guard that has the ability to score (15 ppg last season) and pass (almost 6 apg last year). Of all of the newcomers, I’d guess that he’ll be the most ready to contribute right away. (Smith’s YouTube Highlights)
-Austin Awad, junior – Awad is also coming to WU from the JUCO ranks, as he spent the last two years at Eastern Florida State. At 6’6″, Awad brings some height to wing, and likely will be a shooter off the bench, as over 80% of his shot attempts last season were from three. He averaged over 10 ppg and 5 rpg as a sophomore (after averaging 7 ppg and 5 ppg as a freshman), shooting around 37% from three in his two seasons at EFSC. (Awad’s YouTube Highlights)
-Keondre Schumacher, freshman – Coach Kelsey loves combo guards, and the 6’0″ Schumacher seems to fit the description, as he averaged over 17 ppg and 4 apg at University High School in Normal, IL. From what I can tell, he has good shooting range and solid ball-handling skills. (Schumacher’s YouTube Highlights)
-Tom Pupavac, freshman – After striking gold in Australia with Xavier Cooks, the WU coaching staff has brought in a couple of players from Down Under, the first being the 6’10” Pupavac. He appears to have a good outside shot for a big guy, and it will be interesting to see how he’s able to battle down low at the Division I level. (Pupavac’s YouTube Highlights)
-Kyle Zunic, freshman – Zunic is the other new Australian on the roster, and is a 6’2″ combo guard with some experience at the international level, playing for Australia’s U17 National Team in the 2016 FIBA U17 World Championship. Coach Kelsey raved about his toughness in the school’s press release when he was signed. (Zunic’s YouTube Highlights)
-Charles Falden, freshman – Falden is a 6’3″ guard/wing who played high school ball at LC Bird HS in Chesterfield, VA, then spent last season at Massanutten Military Academy. He averaged over 20 ppg (I’ve seen anywhere from 21-24 ppg depending on the source) at Massanutten, a team that is sending 4 players to D1 schools from their roster last year. He also shot over 40% from three, both at Massanutten and as a senior in HS. (Falden’s YouTube Highlights)
-Kellen Blake, senior
-Freddie Poole, senior
-Mitch Hill, senior
-Matt Erps, senior
WU has a veteran group of walk-ons to help run scout team and add practice depth. It would be surprising to see any in this group get meaningful minutes this season. Matt Erps is the only new walk-on on the roster, but he’s not new to the program, spending the last three seasons as a team manager.
It is way too early to have any idea on exactly how good this team will be in 2017-18. With so many new names on the roster, it is hard to really know. Having Xavier Cooks on the team should keep WU in the mix at the top of the Big South standings, as nobody in the league can really match up with him. UNC Asheville and Liberty each return a good chunk of their rosters from last season, so don’t be surprised if they are picked as the favorites over WU in the preseason. WU’s success will likely hinge on how well the newcomers fit into the mix. The Eagles are currently on a trip to Australia, which should help jump-start some of the integration of the new guys into the system. The good news is that most of the newcomers have faced some good competition in their past, as a couple have played at the Division I level already, and others have been at good programs at the Junior College level, the International level, and/or the prep-school level. But there is always a learning curve that they will all have to overcome, and I expect to see some early struggles, especially on the defensive end. It seems to take Kelsey’s teams a little while to mesh on defense, and while Cooks and Bjorn Broman should be good veteran presences on that end, there will surely be some missed assignments, miscommunication, and breakdowns defensively as the new guys get incorporated into the system. As we get into the fall, we’ll hopefully know a little more about how this team will look, and I’ll take a deeper dive into what each team in the Big South will bring to the 2017-18 season.