SU plans to learn from last year’s struggles

Posted: November 13, 2013

Senior Avery Green and the Hornets are expecting a better showing in the ODAC this year. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)
Senior guard Bryce Mitchell averaged 6.8 points per game last season and is expected to be a big contributor for the Hornets as they try to bounce back from a disappointing season last year. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — To say that the Shenandoah University men’s basketball team experienced a rude awakening in its first season in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference would be an understatement.

The Hornets lost all 16 games on the court (one defeat against Bridgewater turned into a forfeit win because of the Eagles’ use on an ineligible player) by an average of 18.4 points per game. Only four of those losses were by single digits.

The end result was a 4-22 overall, 1-15 ODAC season, leaving SU with just 13 wins in its last three seasons.

But now, the Hornets know what the weekly ODAC grind is all about. And now they know just how mentally and physically tough you need to be to compete in it.

“Last year was difficult, but in a lot of ways, it’s benefited us this year,” said SU third-year head coach Rob Pryor. “I think some of the biggest things that we realized we needed to do was get physically stronger and faster, and just gain experience. We didn’t have one senior last year, and the only way to gain experience is to just go through the fire.

“I think the guys have a better idea of what we do offensively and defensively than last year. They’ve worked hard in the weight room and they’re stronger. And I think they have a better understanding of how hard they have to work.”

SU — which opens up its season at 8 p.m. Friday in the BB&T Tip-Off Classic at Shingleton Gymnasium against former USA South rival Methodist — brings back 11 of the 14 players who were listed on the final 2012-13 roster.

That 11 does not include senior guard/forward Avery Green, who averaged 9.9 points while starting in six of the season’s first nine games last year but did not finish the season because Pryor said Avery had a knee injury that kept him limited until the summer.

The Hornets will not have the services of the only player to start all 26 games last year, Sharif Almulla, who has transferred to Division II Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.

Senior guard Bryce Mitchell (6.8 points per game) and last year’s leading scorer, junior guard Jared Carithers (13.0 points, 2.0 assists) said going through what the team went through last year provided strong motivation to put in more work.

Carithers said as soon as the season ended last year, players spent a lot of time together working in the gym on their respective games, and their work ethic has continued into the season.

It was important for the veterans to spend that time together, because this way they could make the transition easier for their nine newcomers. With five returnees paired with 14 newcomers at the season’s outset last year, SU found out how just how difficult it can be for a team to gel.

In short, SU has grown up a lot.

“Last year a lot of people weren’t prepared for the switch in the conference, and just how physical and how intense every team in the ODAC was,” Carithers said. “This year, we know what to expect.”

One thing that SU hopes is no longer an issue is the team’s comfort level with its Princeton offense. Mitchell said there were players last year who “didn’t buy in” to the motion attack, and now players are adapting their playing styles to it.

Carithers said it’s a system that a lot of players aren’t used to running, and he admitted it had been a struggle for him to pick up.

“This year it just clicks,” Carithers said.

From the sound of it, SU fans should expect more than the 60.5 points per game the team averaged last season.

“We can score,” Pryor said.

With 21 players, the Hornets can go a number of different ways to find a lineup that clicks.

In their 87-62 exhibition loss to NCAA Division I Campbell (the game counted for the Camels) on Friday, 10 people played between 11 and 31 minutes.

Sophomore forward Jimi Starks led the way for SU with 14 points and nine rebounds, and the day before the exhibition Pryor said Starks — who averaged 4.1 points and 2.5 rebounds in 14.9 minutes per game last year — was ready to take a big step forward for SU.

“I think Jimmy’s really matured as a player and as a person, and he’s really settled in and done a nice job for us,” Pryor said.

Pryor said Green (11 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals vs. Campbell) looks good and is expected to provide a boost, and with Carithers directing the offense Pryor thinks he has a backcourt that can match up with just about anyone in the ODAC.

“I think [Avery’s] got the potential to be an all-ODAC player,” Pryor said. “I think he could have one of the best seasons someone’s had here in recent memory with the way that he’s been playing. When he’s done, I want people to look back on the year and remember what he did.”

After only having one player over 6-foot-3 last year, 6-6 freshman forward C.J. Rudisill, who’s from Pittsburgh, is one of four players SU has added who are between 6-5 and 6-8. Rudisill has solidified a starting spot at the season’s outset.

“He’s very versatile,” Pryor said. “He can shoot, he can dribble, he can pass, he’s athletic, he’s long — he’s really the whole package.

“Once his strength and his knowledge and experience at this level catches up, then he’s going to be a phenomenal player. He’s learning right now, so some days he’ll look better than others, but he’s a very talented player.”

Pryor expects SU to be 10 deep most nights, and he feels the quality of that depth will be better.

Junior 6-7 center Kevin Lecsaint (3.1 rebounds in 15 starts last year), 6-5 freshman forward Sam Lawrence (Roanoke, North Cross School), and captains Mitchell and junior forward Xavier Alston (4.7 points, 5.0 rebounds) headline the rest of SU’s roster.

It’s too early to say how SU’s season is going to go — the ODAC coaches are picking them to finish last in the 12-team league again — but Pryor isn’t thinking about the end result right now.

He’s too invested in the process of progress, and he just hopes it goes according to plan once the ODAC opener arrives on Nov. 30 at Lynchburg. Outside of Randolph-Macon, Pryor thinks the ODAC is “wide open.”

“Offensively, we’re not where I want us to be yet,” Pryor said. “Defensively, we’re not where I want us to be yet. But we’re getting there, and we’re getting better. As long as we’re improving every single day, I can feel good about what we’re doing.

“But I think we’re chomping at the bit to get into our ODAC schedule. Not to overlook our non-conference, but we’re using that as preparation so that when we get there, it’s ‘Let’s redeem ourselves from what we did last year.’”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at  rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1