Following a preseason matchup with Pittsburgh in which it held the lead for almost the entire first half, the Slippery Rock University men’s basketball team will open the regular season this weekend.
At the Rock’s forefront will be four returning seniors who eye an improvement over the previous years’ Slippery Rock team, which reached the conference tournament but exited in the first round. The team will benefit from a veteran backcourt comprised of guards Khyree Wooten and Merdic Green, the only two players on last year’s team to start all 29 games. In 2016-2017, Wooten, this year’s team captain, played more minutes than any other player and Green averaged 10.8 points per contest, enough to be the team’s leading returning scorer for the approaching season.
The two other returners, center Christal Malalu and forward Tony Gates, also look to contribute to the team’s success. Malalu, a 6’9” center native of the Netherlands, was last season’s top rebounder on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. He registered five double-doubles and grabbed a season-high 19 boards in a January matchup with Edinboro. Gates was a key player off the bench for The Rock, averaging almost four points and three rebounds in the 23 games he appeared in.
The four returning seniors were helpful in the process of bringing together a team that added many new members during the offseason. “They’ve done a good job of leading the team, that’s been a strength,” head coach Kevin Reynolds stated. “They’ve taken good ownership in the team, whether it’s been their day or not their day, whether they’re starting or not starting.”
Malalu considers it a responsibility for him and his fellow seniors to help the team coalesce. He said, “The ability of the seniors to step up and lead the team [with so many new players] has been important. I think we got better as a whole and have kind of now figured out how people play. I’ve seen guys getting better every day.”
Though the team lost eight players from last season’s roster, most notably second-team All-PSAC Western Division guard Naquil Jones, it welcomed twelve new faces throughout the offseason. Of the dozen additions, nine of so come as transfers.
Guard Aaron McDonald and forward Micah Till move to SRU from Harford Community College, where they both averaged in the double figures in points while leading the Fighting Owls to their second of two straight Region 20 championships last season. Third-year sophomore guard De’ Shae Lee comes from Garrett College averaging 16.8 points per game. Center Troidell Carter arrives from Henderson State University and forward Ryan Skovranko played as a West Chester Golden Ram last season. Brandon Simmons, a forward, previously played for Marshalltown Community College, the same school that SRU mainstays Malalu and Green attended before throwing on the green and white.
Newcomers Richard Bivens, a senior forward who comes by way of Florida International University, and Bruce Spruell, a junior guard from American International College, were starters in the exhibition against the Panthers. Bivens, who is from Bakersfield, California, started six games and shot 56 percent from the field at FIU. Spruell was the only player to start all 28 games for the Yellow Jackets in the previous season and was the team’s second-leading scorer.
The other three recruits, Evan Chandler, Karlyn Garner and Simon Mulaa, are all freshman guards coming from high school. The trio were all standout performers during their time as high schoolers. Chandler was an all-conference player at Central Dauphin East High School in Harrisburg.
Named to the Fab 15 as a senior at West Mifflin High, Garner also led the WPIAL 3A classification in scoring last season. From Fairfax, Virginia, Mulaa was a first-team All-Patriot League Defense honoree as he led WT Woodson High to the 2017 VHSL 6A state title.
Along with the new talent he has stockpiled, Reynolds stresses the importance of effort in practicing. “The biggest transition to a four-year level of basketball, whether you’re in high school or junior college or prep school, is the daily grind,” he said. “At that other level, you’re the best guy and whether you bring it every day or not, you’re going to play the majority of the minutes. I think the biggest difference when you come to a winning team like ours is the ability to bring your ‘A’ game on a daily basis.”
The recognition in practice that the players strive to attain will be key in deciding who plays on a given night. Due to the interchangeable parts that this team has, Reynolds plans to play different lineups and make steady use of his reserve players.
The depth on the roster fosters the ability for Reynolds to return to a fast-break offense predicated on speed and spreading the ball.
“We’ve never played a star-studded system here. We’ve always played, whoever’s day it is, it’s their day and it’s their team and we play for the team,” coach said. In his first season at SRU, five players averaged double-figures in scoring. “[In the past], we were able to win a lot of games because teams couldn’t just key on one or two guys and I’m hoping that’s the case again this season.”
The team begins the season on the road on Nov. 11 and 12 for the Jakobi’s Journey Basketball Classic against Glenville State College and West Virginia Wesleyan College.
Reynolds stated, “We’re the only team that’s played the conference challenge on the road each year we’re eligible. A lot of teams play it at home, [but] we feel like it’s a great way to see what our team is made of.”
The team’s following games will be big, early back-to-back home tests against the top two teams in the PSAC Eastern Division preseason poll. The defending conference champion Shippensburg Raiders, ranked fourth in the DII Bulletin Top-25 preseason poll, will visit Morrow Field House on Nov. 18 and the Kutztown Golden Bears, who reached the Atlantic Region quarterfinals in the NCAA DII tournament last year, will follow the next day.
The Rock will face three teams who won at least 20 games and three teams that made the NCAA tournament last season.
“We’ve got guys who want to win,” said Wooten. “We feel as if we’re the best team in the PSAC. I feel like we can win it all this year.”