Saturday, November 1, 2014

Wofford men's basketball 2014-15 preview: Young's talented squad has head high, eyes forward

Wofford men’s basketball has gone through quite a bit of change over the past several years.

First, the Terriers put together an impressive 26-9 campaign in 2009-10, which included a streak of ten consecutive regular-season victories that followed a heartbreaking, nationally-televised 70-68 setback to the College of Charleston. Wofford stormed through the SoCon tournament, putting away UNC-Greensboro and Western Carolina before facing Appalachian State in the final, which saw a 56-51 decision in favor of the Terriers.

With the win, Wofford clinched its first-ever bid to the NCAA tournament. They were slated to play Wisconsin in Jacksonville, Fla., and play they did, keeping the game close, even tied with a little more than a minute to go, as the contest winded down to a conclusion. The Badgers came out victorious, sending the Terriers home with a 53-49 triumph.

“…I thought we looked a little jittery,” head coach Mike Young reflected to reporters after the game. “I thought we were a bit overwhelmed, but that is not this [team]. And I told them, just do it, guys.  Just be yourselves and lay your ears back and play.”

As such, the loss left the Terriers’ pride largely uninjured.

Young and the Terriers would carry that spark into the next year, where an 18-12 record was posted during the regular season.  Wofford disposed of the tough SoCon tournament opposition with double-digit victories all around; after beating Appalachian State and Western Carolina, the Terriers were lifted to a tourney final matchup with the College of Charleston. Wofford took a 77-67 decision, and effectively punched their second-consecutive ticket to the ‘Big Dance.’

Wofford lost to BYU, 74-66, in Wofford’s only second-ever NCAA tournament game. However, in the effort, Tim Johnson reached a milestone: his 1000th rebound for the Terriers. “We’ll look back here a month from now, ten years from now, [Johnson] had every bit as much to do with where our program has gone over the last four years as anybody.”

Now, Johnson returns to Spartanburg, not on the court, but on the bench as assistant coach. It’s a position the Memphis, Tenn., native took prior to the 2013 season, after some work on the coaching staff at Wyoming.

Flash forward a few years from the 2010-2011 season, and we see Young and Johnson, those similar faces on the bench, and a few fresh but proven players out on the court.

The Terriers finished the regular season 17-12, which included nine straight victories from Jan. 20 to Feb. 22, when Davidson dropped the Terriers by ten points to snap the win streak. Wofford regrouped, but not before two closer-than-expected games to Elon (won 63-59) and UNC-Greensboro (lost 73-71).

Then came the SoCon tournament in Asheville, N.C., where Wofford first met The Citadel. There, the Terriers used a big second half to secure a 68-51 triumph. Wofford beat Georgia Southern 71-57 to advance to the tournament final.

Prior to the Terriers’ matchup with the Eagles, Western Carolina and Davidson were locked in a tight battle that concluded with a 99-97 advantage for the Catamounts.

En route to being named SoCon tournament MVP, Karl Cochran put up 23 points on the Catamounts, but none felt so crucial as the pair of free throws he made to put Wofford up 56-53 with less than ten seconds to go. Western Carolina’s shot at the buzzer refused to go through, and the celebration for the Terriers began.

It wasn’t all happiness in Asheville, though, as a true leader for the squad, senior Aerris Smith, revealed that he would be going into knee surgery soon, and that the chilling triumph over Western Carolina that gave the Terriers their third NCAA tournament berth in five years would be his last game donning the old gold and black on the court.

Another loss the Terriers are facing is assistant coach Darris Nichols’ departure to a similar job at Louisiana Tech.

“That’s what happens when you have some success,” Young noted, referring to other programs’ offseason pursuit of himself, although the same could be said of Nichols. With reassurance he added, “it would take something very, very special for me to ever leave.”

The Terriers fell to Michigan in the NCAA tournament by a score of 57-40. “Some nights, unfortunately, the ball just doesn’t drop in the basket,” Cochran lamented following the conclusion of the game. “Some nights aren’t as good as others…we just faced a tough night from the three-point line.”

“…I’m beaming with pride with these guys…and their accomplishments, our program’s accomplishments, and we got a pretty good team coming back,” Young said. “So, we’ll walk out of here with our head high.”

In October, SoCon coaches and media tabbed the Terriers with preseason number-one honors. 

“We don’t put a lot of stock in that,” Young, who is entering his thirteenth season at the helm in Spartanburg, said to TerrierVision. “[It’s a] nice recognition from people I think highly of, but, you know, we’re not going to remember this when league play rolls around in January and February.”

Also honored was Karl Cochran, a senior out of Marietta, Ga., who undoubtedly led this Terrier squad to success last season. The SoCon tournament MVP, Cochran averaged 15.7 points per game, while scoring 518 total. He also recorded 100 assists and 55 steals, both superlative marks.

Cochran, who logged 22 starts, broke the 1,000 point barrier in the Terriers’ four-point victory over Big South foe Winthrop, making him the 43rd player in school history to have accomplished such a feat.

Fellow senior Lee Skinner, forward out of Lombard, Ill., played a team-leading 1,048 minutes, in which he averaged 11.1 points per game. Skinner also picked up a team-leading 280 rebounds, making him an even more venerated threat in Wofford’s front court.

C.J. Neumann, junior forward from St. Paul, Minn., started in thirteen games last season, logging 652 minutes played and 104 rebounds, while averaging 4.4 points per game.

Junior guard Spencer Collins, a native of Easley, S.C., started in all 33 games, averaging 12.5 points and 3.1 rebounds per game.

Someone to keep an eye on this season is Eric Garcia, sophomore guard from Aurora, Colo., who put up 225 points and had the team’s second-best free-throw percentage (behind Collins) in his 26 starts and five additional contests he played in. 

Additional depth comes in the form of Jaylen Allen (sophomore guard, Johnson City, Tenn.), John Swinton (senior guard, Mt. Pleasant, S.C.), Eric  Wagenlander (sophomore guard, Mt. Pleasant, S.C.), Jeremiah Tate (sophomore guard, Columbia, S.C.), Justin Gordon (junior forward, Charlotte, N.C.), and Zach Korkowski (junior forward, Williamsburg, Va.).

There will be a lot riding on the hopefully continued success of the underclassmen on this roster, and, of course, the Terriers will be looking at a boon for future success, Ryan Sawvell, who transferred to Wofford from Evansville. Sawvell will be eligible to play next season.

Wofford was also gifted with the addition of several new faces this season. “I’m really excited about all of them,” Wofford/IMG Sports Network color analyst Thom Henson told me in July. “They have to learn our system and our staff’s way of doing things, but these guys can play and want to win.”

Those newcomers include Derrick Brooks, guard out of Bartow, Fla.; Cameron Jackson, forward from Winchester, Va.; Larry McKnight, Jr., guard from Miami, Fla.; and Bobby Perez, guard out of Atlanta, Ga.

“I think both [Brooks and Jackson] will play and contribute,” Henson said. “Larry McKnight was a great spring addition. He’s a thick guy who will get after it.”

All in all, this a very depth-filled and capable roster that exemplifies the “WoCo 3D” attitude’s fundamentals of discipline, dedication, and determination.
“[Wofford] is going to be hungrier [for success],” Henson noted. “I really think this team is loose enough to be relaxed, but driven enough to put in the work required.”

The Terriers’ 2014-15 campaign will begin on Nov. 14th, when they will make the long trip across the country to Stanford, Calif., to take on the Stanford Cardinal, in a game that is part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. The Cardinal went 23-13 (10-8 Pac-12) last season, and are returning several strong seniors, in addition to some experienced underclassmen and new faces.

On November 18th, Wofford fans will have to awaken early to catch the squad’s home opener vs. the Iona Gaels. The contest, which will be a part of ESPN’s 24-hour Tip-Off Marathon, will start at 7:00 A.M. EST. The Gaels, while without leading seniors like Sean Armand, will still retain enough experience to make a difference. Wofford fell at Iona last season, 76-55.

Following the early game, the Terriers will make the trip to Fairfield, Conn., to play three more games in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. They will be against the hosting Fairfield Stags, South Dakota, and Sam Houston State.

The Division II Ohio Valley Fighting Scots, from Vienna, W.Va., will come into the BenJo on Nov. 25th, in what should be an easy tune-up game for the Terriers.

Wofford will face a formidable opponent in William & Mary on Nov. 29th in Williamsburg, Va. The Tribe finished last season 20-12 (10-6 CAA), and fell to Delaware by a single point in the conference championship game. They defeated the Terriers by three points last season.

It’s back to Spartanburg on Dec. 3rd, as the Big South’s Presbyterian Blue Hose come into the BenJo. 

Wofford stays at home on Dec. 6th as well, hosting Florida National University. From Hialeah, Fla., the Conquistadors play in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association, a league whose members are not total strangers to the Terriers. Last season, Wofford defeated an opponent from the USCAA, Johnson & Wales of Charlotte, by a 90-48 margin. 

The first test in a while comes on Dec. 14th, as the Terriers will travel to Raleigh, N.C., to take on the North Carolina State Wolfpack of the ACC. The Pack, led by returning players like Ralston Turner and Anthony Barber, are a strong opponent that went 22-14 last season. NC State, after beating Xavier, was sent home from the NCAA tournament by St. Louis. Wofford’s last game against an ACC school was a demoralizing 74-39 loss to Virginia in 2012; however, the time before that was a quality four-point victory over Wake Forest during the previous season.

On December 17th, Wofford welcomes their second Big South opponent of the season, the Charleston Southern Buccaneers. 

Wofford will then make the trip to Morgantown, W.Va., to take on West Virginia in a Dec. 22nd encounter. Although they earned an NIT bid, the Mountaineers’ average 17-14 season was cut short by Georgetown in the first game; this is similar to how Texas knocked them out of the first encounter of the Big XII tournament. 

Perhaps the most anticipated non-conference matchup for the Terriers will come on Christmas Eve, as Duke will be hosting Wofford. The Blue Devils, who finished the regular season 24-7 but had their time in the ACC tournament cut short by Virginia, looked poised to be a major NCAA tournament threat before being shocked by Mercer, a current SoCon member who was then in the Atlantic Sun Conference, in the second round.

This team, which is made up of both experienced returning players and talented, potential-filled freshmen, is shaping up and growing together to continue building upon this program’s recent success.

“It’s a very interesting group,” Young said to TerrierVision at this year’s men’s basketball media day. “They understand the process and what is required day in, day out to put ourselves into position to do something special again.”

This year, while there is an unavoidable tag that favorites this squad to win another title, there will be much hard work involved and many formidable opponents to face. “To be able to bring most of [last year’s] team back, intact, is certainly exciting,” Young said. “But, yet again, [the SoCon is] a very difficult league.”

Whether it’s a routine practice, or special team-building exercises that have helped make this less of a basketball program and more of a basketball family, the Terriers have their heads held high and eyes set forward—and that might just mean another SoCon title.

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