Due to COVID-19, media day has become virtual. And on Tuesday morning, the Western Athletic Conference began a 3-day run of media interviews with head coaches and players from each team. UTRGV, Dixie State and New Mexico State head coaches and players joined the Zoom meeting to talk with the media about the 2020-21 season. Here are some takes from Tuesday morning’s media session.
Leadership is Key for UTRGV
When a coach has a true leader on his team, it sure makes their job easier. And for UTRGV head coaches Lew Hill and Lane Lord, that is exactly what they have in Javon Levi and Amara Graham. On Tuesday morning, Hill and Lord spoke with the media about their leaders.
“You look at Amara Graham,” Lord said. “She’s been in the program five years now. We’ve been together for three years. She’s our leader. We trust her. She’s been one of the best players in the league two years in a row. She’s led the league in three-point shooting … so we’re going to rely heavily on Amara Graham.”
It takes leadership to win championships. Lord mentioned how New Mexico State had Brooke Salas two years ago and Kansas City had Ericka Mattingly in 2019-20.
“You gotta have experience to win games, you gotta have experience to win championships. I feel like we have one of the best leaders in the league. And not only one of the best leaders but one of the best players in Amara Graham.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s really pressure,” Levi said in regard to Lew Hill calling him THE leader. “It’s just about doing what I’m supposed to do. Coach was a point guard so of course he’s going to hold me to that standard. I have to understand that it comes with the position. So it’s really not too much pressure.”
Excitement Surrounding Dixie State Basketball
During the Tuesday morning media session with Dixie State head coaches Jon Judkins and JD Gustin, you could sense the excitement brewing in St. George. The Trailblazers are in their first year at the Division I level. And with that, comes some extraordinary opportunities. The Dixie State women will host in-state foe BYU while the men host in-state foe Weber State while also traveling to Spokane to take on top-ranked Gonzaga in December.
“I think the WAC is a great conference, especially for basketball,” Judkins said. “So we’re really excited. We’re even more excited we’re even playing. For a while we didn’t even know if we were going to be able to play our first year in. And now, getting the schedule down and everything. We’re really excited to get it going.”
Judkins is in his 16th season on the Dixie State benched and has 569 career wins.
“Here in St. George, people know how we play,” Judkins said. “We like to get up and run and kind of make it fun that way. We expect to do that again. But, again, it’s our first year in and we’re going to have to make some adjustments. What’s best for us. I will promise you this, we will compete and we will give it everything we have.”
Dixie State women’s head coach JD Gustin is a confident coach. Preseason selections and polls don’t matter. And with his experience in the PAC-12 and Big Sky Conferences, Gustin believes he understands what to expect for his Trailblazers in their first year in the WAC.
“I think it helps that I have a little bit of Division I experience,” Gustin said. “I think if I hadn’t spent a little time in the Pac-12 and the Big Sky, that the jump would make me a little more nervous. And that’s no disrespect to the WAC. It’s got great coaches and players. But, I think I have a decent idea of what we’re getting ourselves into. I think the players we have, the strides we’ve made even Division II to now, will still allow us to be competitive and possibly competitive right away.”
Gustin led the Trailblazers to an 18-12 finish in 2019-20. The 18 wins are the most wins since the 2011-12 season.
Restrictions Hampering NMSU Preparations
You could hear it in New Mexico State head coach Chris Jans’ voice on Tuesday morning speaking with the media. There is frustration brewing in Las Cruces due to the COVID-19 restrictions put in place by Gov. Lujan Grisham. And yes, while public health and safety override sports, it’s still a trying time for the defending WAC champions.
“It’s been an interesting time for all of us dealing with the pandemic,” Jans said. “Specifically for our basketball team with the recent restrictions placed upon us. So, we’ve had to be creative and try to do as good as we can each day … we talk about adversity a lot sports and a big old pile of adversity has been placed right in front of us. So, we’re trying to work through that.”
Right now, according to the restrictions put in place, the Aggies can only practice with five players at a time. So, no five on five scrimmages or even four on four drills. And it’s set the Aggies behind a bit.
“They don’t like it,” Jans said. “They’re frustrated. Our level of frustration is pretty high right now, from the top down. They (players) want to get after it. They want to compete. And they want to get better and do the things that we’ve done around here.”
It is a similar story on the women’s side. However, for head coach Brooke Atkinson, returning seven of your top players from 2019-20 makes it a bit easier. The Aggies are led by preseason All-WAC selection Aaliyah Prince as well as Rodrea Echols and Soufia Inoussa.
“With a smile,” Atkinson said when asked how the Aggies are adjusting to the restrictions. “Just doing what we can do the best we can. We just kind of talked about, as a group, it sucks, yep. But, we just have to control what we can control … and they can control their effort and energy.”
Neither team in Las Cruces has put out any non-conference scheduling news. And a lot of that is due to restrictions. According to the New Mexico social distancing and travel restrictions, anyone traveling from a high-risk state “must physical separate from others in a residence or place of lodging for at least 14 days from the date of their entry into New Mexico or the duration of their presence in the state, whichever is shorter.”
So, you can understand the frustration happening for the Aggies.