NATCHITOCHES — The Northwestern State men’s basketball team will be a hodge-podge of returning and new faces that will attempt to find the right mix for a successful 2019-20 season.
The Demons return seven lettermen and three starters, but many of the eight newcomers could play large roles this season as NSU coach Mike McConathy will attempt to return to his wave system (deep teams that can substitute five players at a time).
NSU opens its season at home Tuesday against Centenary before heading to Texas A&M for a Wednesday showdown on the SEC Network.
“We’re fortunate that we have a lot of good young players and some good returners,” McConathy said. “We’ve done good things with waves in the preseason, and we hope we’re deep enough to rotate guys in and out.
“We’re continuing to improve, and we’ll see what our depth factor really is.”
McConathy, who enters his 21st season in Natchitoches, expects this edition of NSU basketball to find the bottom of the net more often.
After suffering through a season in which NSU shot just 41 percent from the field (lowest in at least seven seasons), the Demons signed four players that shot at least 50 percent in their previous stops and another who made 36 percent from long range.
Junior forward Jamaure Gregg connected on an astonishing 70 percent of his shots at Cochise College (Ariz.), and he’s joined by junior transfer Jairus Roberson (top NJCAA 3-point shooter with a career record 151 3-pointers at Trinity Valley), junior transfer Gatdoar Kueth (55 percent from Southwestern CC in Iowa), sophomore transfer Trenton Massner (36 percent 3-point shooter from Southeastern CC in Iowa) and freshman guard Jovan Zelenbaba (54 percent at Combine Academy).
Combine that with senior guard LaTerrance Reed, NSU’s leading returning scorer at 9.5 points per game (34 percent from 3-point range), and the Demons appear to have the tools to improve on its 66 points per game from an 11-20 squad (6-12 Southland Conference).
Fellow senior Jacob Guest is also expected to get more clean looks at the basket.
“It makes a lot of difference when you have multiple guys on the floor who can shoot because the defense has to step out and guard them now,” McConathy said. “It leaves guys open on the interior in our power offense, and we can get more cuts and more easy buckets.
“It’s a breath of fresh air to see balls go in the bucket.”
Defenses tended to sag on All-SLC first-teamer Ishmael Lane, who finished his NSU career in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding and third all-time in blocks in program history. Lane was also the Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year with his 69 blocks and 9.5 rebounds per game to go with 13.8 points per contest.
But NSU has a committee of post players to replace Lane, including returners Larry Owens and Dalin Williams, to pair with Gregg as the Demons attempt to develop depth down low.
“Larry has done some good things, and he knows he needs to take more of an active role,” McConathy said. “But he’s catching balls, finishing around the bucket and making free throws.
“Jamaure has played well, and he plays within himself. We have to play defense and rebound by committee, and Dalin pounds people inside and goes to the boards every time. We also think (Kueth) and Robert Chougkaz can help us rebound. Rebounding and defense are my biggest concerns right now, but we can get the most out of people.”
Improved shooting can open driving lanes for a point guard corps that is the most experienced group on the team.
Junior C.J. Jones has been a starter for most of his career, and sophomore Brian White and junior John Norvel have also tasted significant minutes.
Jones led the team in assists (65), which is expected to increase with more shooters on the floor.
“C.J. has done well in our scrimmages, but we want to push the ball even harder this year,” McConathy said. “He was playing a lot of minutes last year, and playing at the rate we wanted to might have cause him some discomfort.
“Brian White has healed from his injury (appeared in 11 games), and he’s used to pushing the ball. He’s got his speed back, and we’re working with him to make the right decisions at the right time and manage our team.
“Some days I shake my head in amazement about how well the ball moves and how well it’s spread around. As long as we don’t put the ball on the deck too much, we can limit turnovers and be effective.”
McConathy identified Massner, Reed and freshman Jovan Zelenbaba as other guys who can attack the paint.
Other potential difference makers include redshirt junior Chudier Bile and freshman Nikos Chougkaz.
Bile will step on the floor for the first time in nearly 18 months after he redshirted this past season because of a transfer from fellow Division I member Bradley.
Chougkaz is a lengthy perimeter player who’s flashed offensive prowess as member of the Greek U19 National Team that hosted the FIBA national event this past summer.
“Chudier has responded well to the way we’ve challenged him, and he has to learn to take what’s in front of him,” McConathy said. “He can be a very effective player when he stays in his lane.
“Nikos can create a lot of matchup problems. He continues to get stronger, and that will make a huge difference because of the toughness defenses will play with around the ball, and because smaller guards can get up under him.”
Twin Robert Chougkaz also has Greek national team experience earlier in his basketball career and will be a part of NSU’s post committee.
NSU has five players with international ties as the Chougkaz twins (Greece), Zelenbaba (Israel) and two Americans with families from Sudan (Kueth and Bile).