By all accounts last season was a disaster. A team that on paper had the makeup of one who’d challenge for another conference championship and it’s second tournament appearance in three seasons found itself rudderless when the injury bug bit just minutes into the season.
Concern turned to disappointment, then to anger for most. After the last seconds ticked off at Legacy Arena, finally putting the dismal season to an end, I thought to myself; if I’m mad these kids and staff must be pissed. What could have been, right?
Hopefully the anger will now be turned to motivation given once again UAB is loaded with experience and depth at nearly every position. Nick Norton’s return and the final curtain call for William Lee and Chris Cokley will place expectations high, and rightfully so. This season has the potential to be special. Let’s have a look at pieces that will play the part in the Blazers’ rebound to the top.
The Core Pieces
When looking at this seasons roster, The Big Three — Cokley, Lee, and Norton — are the team’s foundation as they’ve accumulated nearly 50 wins together as starters. The trio all came in together in 2014 and each has progressed significantly from one season to the next. We’ll get an extra year with Nick because of the injury, but I’d expect they’ll have the mindset of seeing this final season together out on top.
In Nick’s absence we saw Haha progress and blossom as he took on the team’s leading scorer role, as well as the defensive anchor. I’d argue Cokley suffered the most of any from Nick’s absence due to the lack of timely distribution and the coach’s limitation in schemes. Nick does a ton of things really well, but none are more important than his ability to make offense easier for his teammates. In addition, Nick will provide another key perimeter threat that will space out the floor and give Cokley more room to work.
The rumor is Cokley has been working on his three-point shot in the off season, and we could see it implemented in games this season. I’ll just say, I’ll believe it when I see it. If he does in fact add that threat to his game … watch out.
The Supporting Cast
I think we all can agree that The Big Three will be starters for most, if not all of the season. Beyond them it’s somewhat of a mystery and could very well be a revolving door of options for Coach Ehsan. My gut tells me we’ll see the newly acquired JUCO guard Jalen Perry and Nate Darling. This particular lineup for sure gives us four reliable perimeter shooters, which was never a reality with last year’s roster. The reality of Darling seeing significant starter-type minutes comes down to his defensive development over the summer. That’s the area where I could see him being unseated by Deion Lavender, or maybe even Lewis Sullivan.
Ken Pomeroy just wrote an article for The Athletic earlier this week detailing the rise in three-point attempts and it’s direct correlation to success over the last three seasons. To summarize so you won’t have to get through the site’s paywall, teams who’ve been relying on the three-point shooting have been more successful in recent years than their counterparts. It’s time we join in on that trend, and this roster affords us that opportunity.
I really love this freshman class and that’s not just me beating the Blazer drum. I have a strong feeling that we’ll see a group more ready for the college game than any of the previous classes Coach Ehsan has been a part of, and that includes our boys from 2014. How the three new faces, Luis Hurtado, Mahktar Gueye, and Zack Bryant fit into our current rotation is a mystery. Hurtado and Bryant both can play the one and two, but Gueye at 6-foot-10 is a hybrid four that could be adapted to all sorts of intriguing line ups. I think the questions about this group will be answered early as I expect all three to see considerable playing time.
The roster is rounded out with the mature and seasoned Thomas Smallwood who has been a fan favorite and incredible teammate for years. His value goes far beyond the minutes he gives us on the court. The last couple of new faces, Hunter Reynolds and Anderson McCoy, provide guard depth that will be vital and essential as the grind of the season progresses on. I’m interested to see both of them in person soon as I know little about their skill sets.
Last season we stumbled through the non-conference schedule with just six wins against Division 1 opponents. Barring another incredibly unlucky occurrence, we should comfortably win eight or nine before the New Year. I love that we get Memphis and Auburn again with this roster who will be determined to avenge last year’s losses that we led in at halftime. Mark it down now, the Memphis losing streak ends this season.
Those of you who’ve followed The Daily Dragon over the years know I pumped up last year’s team super hard in the off season. I still contest that if Nick hadn’t gone down we would have accomplished the lofty goals I put out for the team. I say all that to ask for your trust ONE MORE TIME. This year’s team is special and will have the chance to do some big things, and hopefully hang another banner from Bartow.