It's time to get ready for the Big Sky season again with some overviews of each team this month, and then eventually we'll get into more detailed looks at everything.
What They Lost: It was a rough year last season for the Thunderbirds, as they waited until right before the end of the year to finally get their first DI win. One of the reasons for the struggles was how young the team was, playing lots of underclassmen. As such, the losses were limited.
The biggest is Jaren Jeffery, a big man who played about 45% of the team's minutes. He shot 52% inside the arc, and was a good rebounder as well. He could provide a little bit of rim protection also, with a nice block rate. Also gone is Jayson Cheesman, who was better as a junior than he was as a senior. He was always a negative offensively (despite being 6'11'', he shot 31% last season. Thirty one percent.), but at his best he was a good rebounder and shot blocker. Also gone is guard Chris Nsenki, but that may be addition by subtraction, and allow for more minutes to younger, more talented guys.
Who Returns: As you probably gathered, almost everyone is back, and they do have some nice building blocks. As a junior in his third year in the program, AJ Hess is an old hand in the program, and he is a nice player. At times he is a three-point shooting specialist, but he shoots 38% from deep which makes him a good option. He is a solid rebounder from the three spot, and takes care of the ball. A key will be whether he can become more of a number one option.
The backcourt got a lot of experience last year, and a guy I really like is PG John Marshall. As a true freshman, he posted a nice assist rate, and his TO rate was reasonable. He is not an outside shooter (two three-point attempts all year), but he showed an ability to get to the rim, and draw some fouls. If he can find a way to be a more efficient scorer, he will be a good floor leader. Trey Kennedy also got a lot of time, and at times was their top offensive option. Though his percentages don't look great, he was asked to do a lot last season, and showed the talent to create his own shot and get to the foul line. He probably has the highest ceiling of anyone in the program.
Juwan Major also got a lot of time as a freshman, but he struggled, shooting just 40% and turning the ball over at an alarmingly high rate. They thought highly of him, but he needs to show improvement to be considered a Big Sky caliber player. One other returner of note in the backcourt is Race Parsons, who could be a shooting specialist at the off guard spot.
Up front, my favorite guy is Casey Oliverson, who had a very nice debut season as a sophomore. He was an efficient scorer inside (though struggled at the foul line), and showed himself to be an above average rebounder on both ends. He is another building block. Cal Hanks and Eric Rippetoe will both be seniors. Hanks is in the Jayson Cheesman mold in that he can help you as long as he doesn't shoot too much, and focuses on rebounds and rim protection. Rippetoe is a capable outside shooter, though he did not bring much else.
Newcomers: One guy that should help a thin frontcourt is juco transfer Christian Thompson, who averaged 16 points and 6.5 rebounds last year. He is a 6'7'' combo forward that should get a lot of minutes for them, and looks like he should be able to contribute. Other possible frontcourt contributors are Sherron Wilson (6'6'' forward from Las Vegas who averaged 13 and 4 last year and got some interest from Air Force and Tulsa), Kyler Nielson (6'6'' forward from Cedar City), and Tyler Rawson (6'9'', athletic forward from American Fork who should be an above average starter at the four in time).
In the backcourt, Travon Langston enters as a junior college transfer, and should provide some more veteran stability with a lot of the minutes going to sophomores like Kennedy, Marshall, Major, and Parsons. I would expect him to have a role. Austin Waddoups is another guy from American Fork, who has returned to SUU after his Mormon mission. He projects as a solid shooter off the ball at 6'2'', as he made 42% of his threes in his senior year of high school.
General Outlook: SUU will still struggle this year - even though they are more experienced, they are still very young, with two seniors on the roster (who are role players). They took their lumps last year in playing a lot of freshman and sophomores, and there will be some lumps again this year. But the lumps will be less, and I think Nick Robinson is building the foundation for a nice program. They may again finish last in the Big Sky, but they will win a few games this year, and be in a few others that people don't expect, because they are always feisty under Robinson. It is fun to watch the program build.
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