If anything, last season for Slippery Rock men’s basketball was disjointed.
Entering the season with high expectations within the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Western Division, the season started off on a sour note.
Days before the season was set to begin, head coach Kevin Reynolds was placed on administrative leave, amid rumors of the team holding out from practice. Reynolds was eventually fired and long-time assistant coach Ian Grady was given the acting coach tag.
After weathering a rocky start to the season, Slippery Rock rallied around Grady, who was named as the head coach later in the season and reeled off 12 straight wins en route to clinching the No. 2 seed in the PSAC-West.
An injury to star forward Micah Till, a two-time All-PSAC first-team selection, threatened to ruin the season, but Slippery Rock won enough games down the stretch to clinch a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
However, a loss to Mercyhurst in the quarterfinals ended the season prematurely.
Grady hopes the continuity through the offseason and into the preseason will allow Slippery Rock to get off to a faster start this season.
“It was a slow start to the season last year, and we really had to make a lot of changes after that start. Once we bought in and got going got in the same direction and doing the things we needed to do, we were a tough out every night,” Grady said.
That doesn’t mean this season will be without difficulties though as Till will be unable to play in any games until Dec. 15, due to NCAA eligibility issues stemming from his transfer from North Carolina State.
Unlike last season when Till went down with a knee injury, Grady said Slippery Rock is prepared to start the season without him. The abruptness and unpredictability from last season’s missed time will not be issues, according to Grady, but he acknowledged the challenge of replacing his 21 points and 10 rebounds a night.
“I don’t think you can replace a player like Micah, so it’s always difficult. I think the difference between last year is [his injury] happened on the fly, in the middle of the season. So, he was there, and we had to adjust midseason. This year, we’ve had time to prepare for that. We’ve had a bunch of practices all the way from the first we were able to start, so there should be more continuity.”
While Till’s production on the court—he led the conference in rebounding and finished second in scoring and blocks—will be difficult to replace, his mere presence on the court will be impossible to replicate.
Standing at 6’7″ and weighing 250 pounds, there are very few players in the PSAC who can stop Till in transition, on the block or in the paint.
In his absence, last season’s second-leading scorer Jared Armstrong will be leaned on as the go-to scorer.
The senior guard, who played in all 29 games last season as the sixth man, scored 16.4 points per game last season. Armstrong led Slippery Rock in 3-point shooting, shooting 43% from behind the arc.
“We have Jared Armstrong back, who was a second-team all-conference player, and he plays the one and the two,” Grady said. “He’s a good scorer, so we’re banking on him having another good year. The other seniors on the team, Donovan Walker and Will Robinson, Jr., we always look to the upperclassmen.”
Robinson, a transfer senior from McNeese State, started in three games for the Division I Cowboys last season, averaging 6.0 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. The crown jewel of the incoming/transfer players, however, is a player who has been with Slippery Rock for a season already.
After transferring from Division I Louisiana-Monroe before last season, senior guard Donovan Walker picked up an injury before he could see the court. With a full year of learning within Slippery Rock’s system, Grady expects Walker to be a key scorer while Till is out and beyond.
“We’re expecting him to have a good senior year. He came in from Louisiana-Monroe and was hurt last season, so he didn’t have a lot of practice time. He’s done well so far this year, and we’re expecting him to produce at a high level for us,” Grady said.
Robinson and Walker will be counted on to help replace the veteran leadership and production of Vinny Lasley, Nolen Gerald and John Warren.
The trio combined for nearly 38% of Slippery Rock’s scoring offense last season, and Warren and Gerald came alive down the stretch without Till late last season. Grady called Lasley the “glue guy” who held the team together.
Along with Julius Palmer, the 6’11” giant in the paint, a large hole is left open, literally, in SRU’s rotation. With a year of experience under their belts, Grady expressed his excitement in returning a deep group of freshmen from last season.
Sophomore guards Amante Britt and Jason Fowlkes and sophomore forwards Will Bounds and Nik Cazacu return after playing in bench roles last season, for the most part. Britt, however, started in all 29 games last season.
His 29 starts were the most in Slippery Rock basketball freshman history. With a full year of college under his belt, Grady expects Britt to take a large leap in his sophomore campaign.
“Your first year of college is a big adjustment, not just from an academic or living standpoint, but also from the speed of the game and those kinds of things,” Grady said. “They’ve had a year to see this level of competition and adjust.”
After his first offseason as head coach, Grady said he is pleased with the direction his team is trending. With a large incoming group of freshmen, a solid foundation of sophomore and a unique yet balanced group of upperclassmen, he pointed to overall depth as a positive of this season’s squad.
Unlike previous seasons, the balance between classes was something that Grady had strived for, and the makeup of this season’s squad represents more of a concerted effort in that direction, he said.
For the first time in recent memory, this season’s recruiting class was headlined by a five-man freshman class. Dutchman Revelinio Tholel, a 6’7″, 215 pound forward from Tri City Christian, headlines the group.
The “Rock Five” is rounded out by forward Lashon Lindsey and guards Bobby Clifford, Nate Cherry and Brandon Caruso.
Lindsey, standing at a wiry 6’8″, slots in as the tallest member of this season’s squad. An All-State player at Meadville High School, he left as the school’s all-time leading scorer.
Despite losing 60% of the starting rotation and a few key reserve players, Grady is confident in where the team stands as the season kicks off.
“We brought in two juniors and a senior, and we brought in five freshmen,” Grady said. “We wanted to get to a point where we have more class balance. I think we’ve done that, and I expect all those guys to come in and produce.”
With exhibition games at the University of Pittsburgh and Rider University, both Division I schools, to start the season, Grady wanted to use the games as a litmus test of sorts.
“We want to find out a lot about ourselves in these games. One of the reasons we did it was because of the level of play–Pitt in the ACC is going to be much improved under coach Capel–and Rider is another Division I school. It’s a good test for us,” Grady said.
Grady said the games would serve as a great test for not just his team, but for himself and new assistant coaches Jon Valeriano and Malcolm Tatum.
The coaching began early, and it was certainly a test.
Playing at the Peterson Events Center in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh Wednesday, Slippery Rock dropped a 98-47 game. Against Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey Saturday, SRU lost 90-59.
While losing to Division I opponents on the road in exhibition play typically has no bearing on how the regular season will play out, losing in blowout fashion to anyone provides a teaching moment for coaches and the opportunity to bounce back for players.
Slippery Rock will have a week of practice before the John Retton Classic in Fairmont, West Virginia begins SRU’s regular season.
Matches against Notre Dame (Oh.) and Fairmont State, a reunion for Grady, an alum of the university, will begin the regular season for Slippery Rock.
Slippery Rock will not begin PSAC play until Nov. 23 against Shippensburg at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium. For the second consecutive season, SRU was picked to finish second in the PSAC-West, behind Indiana (Pa.).
Regardless of this season’s projected finish, Grady said reaching the individual and program goals set by the players this season will define a successful season.
“The goals that have been sent in the locker room and how those student-athletes accomplish those goals,” Grady said. “From a program standpoint, accomplishing those goals, so we continue to peak toward the end of the year.”