Jacksonville State basketball fans have had a rough couple of years. In 2012, the Gamecocks posted 17 wins, their highest total since their Atlantic Sun days, but were ineligible for the OVC tournament due to a low APR. Last year, free of the APR penalties, a young team lost their final eight after a 4-4 start in conference, and missed the OVC tournament.
It was head coach James Green‘s worst season since a five win campaign in 2010-11, and while youth played a role, Green isn’t convinced that was the only culprit.
“I don’t think our chemistry ever came together,” Green said. I think we kinda lived off what we accomplished the year before, which is something you always try to guard against.”
This year, there’s no success to live off of.
“I think the lesson has been learned by suffering a little bit,” Green said, “and wanting to do better, and having enough character that those guys not only got themselves better, but they’re providing leadership for probably a more talented group of newcomers to get better.”
Among those newcomers are JUCO transfers JaQuail Townser and Gabriel Dos Santos. A 6’3 guard, Townser is expected to take over the starting point guard role this season, after averaging 14 points, five assists, and two steals a game last year for Southwestern Illinois College. Dos Santos made his way to Jacksonville after playing a Division I Detroit as a freshman, and a Florida JUCO program last year.
They’ll be joined in the backcourt by the Darion Rackley, the team’s leading scorer a year ago. But one of the largest questions facing the team is whether Rackley can improve. Statistically — he was stronger as a sophomore, shooting better from the field, especially from deep.
“I think last year was [Rackley’s] most frustrating year in terms of individual success and team success,” Green said, “and I think he realized that because he was one of our better players that teams are going to focus on him. I think he’s learned a little bit how to play through that, how to get everyone else involved a little bit more, and then play off of that, rather than try to do things himself. That will improve him, and take him to a new gear. He’s got to have that kind of year for us to be good.”
Rackley isn’t the only guard returning from last year’s squad: The Gamecocks also return 5’10 senior Avery Moore, 6’2 sophomore Undra Mitchem, and two redshirt freshman in Randall Smith and Nathan Laing.
Mitchem earned a starting role last year just six games into his freshman campaign, although he was pulled from the starting role for the team’s final two games. His 40% three-point shooting was better than his shooting from inside the arc, and he struggled with fouls, which isn’t overly surprising from a young player.
“I think the lesson has been learned by suffering a little bit, and wanting to do better, and having enough character that those guys not only got themselves better, but they’re providing leadership for probably a more talented group of newcomers to get better.”
Moore will also likely play an increased role in the offense coming in off the bench. A transfer from Florida A&M, Moore didn’t become eligible last year until January, but made a solid impact averaging eight points a contest.
Of the two freshman, Smith likely has the biggest upside. As a senior, he was a second team all-state pick in Georgia’s Class 6-A after averaging 16 points and more than five assists a game. Laing averaged 8 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds per game as a senior at Harnett Central High School in North Carolina.
“I think we’re deeper, better at the point guard position,” Green says. “We’re deeper on the perimeter. We probably have six guys that we can play on the perimeter, which I hope will make us a better defensive team, and give us an opportunity to extend the court a little bit and play a little faster with our guards.”
There are newcomers as well. 6’3 freshman Malcolm Drumwright, from LA Prep in California, JUCO transfer Dontay Jackson, and freshman T.J. Sams will all battle for minutes.
Both starters in the frontcourt, D.J. Felder and Jamal Hunter return for their senior seasons. Despite their starting status — neither averaged much more than 20 minutes a game, thanks in part to a combination of fouls, fatigue, and depth issues in the interior. Hunter, for example, fouled out of four straight games during conference play in less than 23 minutes. His season finale? Five fouls, five minutes in a lopsided loss to Belmont.
When Hunter wasn’t fouling, though, he was a tremendous shot blocker, racking up 1.5 per game, fourth best in the league. Despite playing limited minutes, both Felder and Hunter averaged north of four rebounds a game — numbers which should easily rise if their MPG can rise closer to 30.
“I think we kinda lived off what we accomplished the year before, which is something you always try to guard against.”
Sadly for JSU, there’s not much more depth in the frontcourt his year, either. Green will have the services of Jeremy Watson, a 6-7 junior who was redshirted last year after spending two in the JUCO ranks. Watson stats weren’t gaudy at the JUCO level — averaging seven points and five rebounds as a junior. 6’5 Joe Kuligoski is also back after limited minutes last year — a bit undersized for the four, but with all the guard option, Green says it’s likely a guard, not Kuligoski, will play the three most of the year.
One thing that made the 2012-13 ineligible year special? It was just the second time under Green the team won more three road games in a year. The Gamecocks road winning percentage through the years:
JSU will look to bring on a batch of newcomers this year, including 6’5 Ervin Perroni, 6’7 Edward Jones, and 6-9 freshman Dietrich Cole. At just 190 pounds, the rather thin Cole was expected to head to the JUCO ranks this year, but made the decision this summer to head to Jacksonville State instead.
“If we’re thin, it’ll be in the post,” Green admits, “but we’ve got some young guys who are coming along. We don’t know how they’ll respond to competition when we start playing, but this group’s attitude is totally different than last year. Obviously some of the players are the same, but I think that’s a good thing, because I think some of those players are made out of the stuff that will help the program move forward. ”
In his six years with the program, Green has only made the Ohio Valley Conference tournament twice — both times as the seven seed. For this team to make it for a third time, they’ll likely need a breakout star. It could be another bumpy year for JSU fans, but there’s a lot of youth, which could signal brighter times ahead.