Zoom meetings have been a blast over the past three days. Due to COVID-19, the Western Athletic Conference held its usual media day via Zoom meetings over the course of three days. On Thursday, Grand Canyon, California Baptist and Chicago State coaches and student-athletes sat down with the media. New rosters, returning starters, and other bits and pieces of information were part of the discussion.
GCU opens 2020-21 with a new coach on both its men and women’s team. Alessandro Lever returns for first-year head coach Bryce Drew who inherits a pretty talented cast of players.
Molly Miller is one of the winningest coaches in college basketball. Can she continue that trend at GCU?
CBU head coach Rick Croy lost his top six players from a 21-win team. However, the Lancers are no slouch and will be led by starting point guard Ty Rowell.
CBU women’s coach Jarrod Olson is about as humble as they come. Olson’s team is picked by the media to win the WAC but says the conference as a whole is primed for an upswing.
Lance Irvin might have his best team at Chicago State as four starters return along with a 7-footer that gives the Cougars size in the paint.
Tiffany Sardin returns to her hometown looking to lead the Chicago State women in a different direction.
Here are some takeaways from Thursday’s Zoom meetings.
Lopes Have Depth in the Paint
Under Dan Majerle, GCU has been known more for its guard play than anything else. Carlos Johnson, Casey Benson, Dewayne Russell, and Jovan Blacksher Jr. all come to mind. And for the past three years, GCU has had Alessandro Lever in the paint. Okay, let’s be honest, Lever has the ability to play anywhere on the floor as he can shoot the three ball despite his size.
And now, new head coach Bryce Drew loves what he has in his senior center. Drew spoke on Thursday in the first Zoom media session of the day.
“The first thing I’ve been impressed with is his work ethic,” Drew said.
“He loves playing basketball and he loves competing. He’s in the gym getting shots up all the time. Our staff just loves how much he loves the game. He brings such a different dimension to the court with his size but yet his ability to shoot the ball and his skill. So, it makes it easy for a coach because you can use him in so many different positions.”
Drew brought in Wichita State 7-footer Asbjørn Midtgaard and it’s just elevated Lever’s game a little more.
“It’s been great so far,” Lever said. “We’re making each other better in practice because I got a guy inside who’s really big and has to guard me outside. It’s complimenting each other on the court and we’re making each other better every practice. It’s going to be great and I can’t wait to play with him and with everybody else.”
Another name Drew threw out was Gabe McGlothan. The 6’7 redshirt sophomore sat out the 2019-20 season due to transfer rules. But, Drew expects McGlothan will add some more depth in the paint for the Lopes.
“Gabe has put on a lot of strength,” Drew said. “He gives Ale and Asbjørn another big body down there that we can rotate and make us a lot bigger. We will be playing a lot bigger right now which will definitely be different than a lot of the teams across the country are doing.”
Will Character Players Lead to Continued Success?
Molly Miller is the new head coach for the GCU women’s basketball team. On Thursday morning, on the Zoom media session, Miller was excited about the new job.
And if you don’t know who Miller is, you should read her bio on the GCU Athletics website. Miller is a winner. A big part of that is getting players to buy. Another part of that success is recruiting the right players, not necessarily the best. Miller calls them ‘character players’ who are full of work ethic, competitiveness, and a desire to be the best they can be.
“I’ve just put really, really good players on the floor,” Miller said. “And good people. We recruit some character kids first and it’s really easy for me to be able to coach someone who wants to be here, who wants to work. And who exudes that kind of competitive nature. They’re good students and they’re good people. I’ve got a great staff, too … you put good people around you and they make you look good.”
Miller also went on about getting kids to buy-in and establishing a culture as a recipe for success.
“I’m super competitive,” Miller said. “Everyday you want to work towards that goal of winning and winning a lot and cutting down nets. I think we’ve developed a pretty good recipe to do that throughout the years. It’s just taking that to a place like GCU and having the kids kind of buy-in … just establishing that culture, that winning attitude. I hope that they can feel that from me. That starts from the top down. It’s something we do. It’s something that we expect and we come into work every day preparing to.”
Entirely New Roster Set for 2020-21
Zoom meetings are interesting especially with confident coaches.
California Baptist head coach Rick Croy, has nearly an entire new roster in 2020-21. Croy returns starting point guard Ty Rowell who suffered an ACL injury in December. And Tre Armstrong returns, as well. So, there are pieces in place.
Rowell is ready for another opportunity and is excited to lead his team.
“I’ve been working on that all fall,” Rowell said. “Just building trust with my teammates and working with them. It’s going to be a process that we keep working on throughout the season. But, I’m looking forward to it.”
When asked who is going to replace WAC Player of the Year Milan Acquaah, Croy didn’t hesitate.
“This guy right here, Ty Rowell,” Croy said. “He’s got great experience in our program and also in the WAC. Stepped into a leadership role that he’s more than ready for. Coming back off his ACL injury, he did a great job with his recovery. Guys can’t wait to compete with him.”
Besides Rowell, the rest of the starting lineup is still up for grabs. CBU lost its starting five from a 21-win season and its sixth man. But grad transfers Gorjok Gak and Elijah Thomas will play big minutes. And freshman Malik Wade and Te’Jon Sawyer could have big first years in the WAC. Also in the mix is TCU transfer Russell Barlow who gives the Lancers more depth in the paint.
Development Wins Championships
In the fourth Zoom session of the day, development was a big topic. The transfer portal is a great tool for coaches in college basketball. The downside is that some coaches only rely on it rather than bringing in and developing young players. CBU women’s basketball head coach Jarrod Olson isn’t one of those coaches. Sure, Olson has brought in transfers but he believes a bit more in development.
“We really pride ourselves on development,” Olson said. “We’ve had transfers, too. So, it’s not like we’re exclusively going freshman all the time. But, every kid on our team, I mean my job and the job of our assistant coaches is to make them the best players they can be as well as the best people they can be. So we take a lot of pride in just working every day on that. I know, some days, to them it probably doesn’t feel like it’s happening. But, keep chipping away, keep chipping away, and eventually we’re going to break through.”
Olson has the luxury of WAC Player of the Year Ane Olaeta at his disposal. Sydney Palma is also expected to have a larger role and she has been in the program for three years. Taylor Wu and Tiena Neale are also going to have larger roles for the Lancers in 2020-21. And all four of these players have been at CBU for the past 2-3 seasons as part of the development Olson is accustomed to.
Cougars Return Four Starters
Chicago State may surprise some teams in 2020-21. Here me out before jumping to conclusions. The Cougars return four starters including Xavier Johnson and Andrew Lewis. Both Johnson and Lewis led the team in scoring in 2019-20.
Isaiah Lewis is back from injury. Lewis averaged close to double digits before his season ended in December at Missouri.
Head coach Lance Irvin also brought in a 7-footer from Luxembourg and a couple of other transfers. Now, I am not saying the Cougars will win the WAC. But they might just surprise some people.
And on Thursday morning, Irvin discussed his excitement on the Zoom media session.
“It’s nice because one thing that you can’t for granted is experience,” Irvin said. “And I think last year we didn’t have much experience. We had a player that got hurt early. We really didn’t have any experience. I think guys like Andrew Lewis, and I keep mentioning him, they were new to the program. It was guys’ first time playing Division I basketball. So, just having the experience, I looked on the court and … I started smiling.”
Rajeir Jones and Solomon Hunt return after starting a combined 50 games in 2019-20. Ke’Sean Johnson who started 12 games is back. And add in junior college transfer Jordan Polynice who Irvin is high on, and this Chicago State team might be able to win a few more games in 2020-21.
Hometown Hero Returns to Change Culture
Chicago State women’s basketball head coach Tiffany Sardin is a Chicago legend. Sardin is a Chicago Public Schools Hall of Famer.
And, if all goes well, perhaps Sardin will be put into the Chicago State University Hall of Fame. But for now, Sardin is happy to be home and a head coach and said as much on the final Zoom session on Thursday.
“To come back home,” Sardin said when asked about taking the job, “To have this opportunity to come back home and give back to a program where a city that has give so much to me, it was a no-brainer. Just to be back home and this environment. I’m excited to be taking over and lead these young women in this program to new heights.”
New heights might not take too long to reach. Since joining the WAC in 2013-14, the Chicago State women have won a total of 15 games. And their best conference finish in that time were in 2015-16 and 2018-19 when the Cougars won two league games. But, Sardin takes over a rather young team. Sophomore Aja Phoumiphat is the team leader on a roster that has just one senior in Leilani Moncrease.
Changing the culture will be difficult. But, a season of 4-5 wins could be considered a success for the Chicago State women.