Friday, January 2, 2015

Previewing Samford: Terriers ready for first SoCon test of season

There's arguably a world of difference between the team we saw last year at this time and the Terrier squad that's been on the court as of late. Among hanging tight with major opponents, disposing of teams they may have fallen to last season, and a general air of confidence surrounding Spartanburg, it seems like things have really changed.

However, there is one thing that won't be much different than last year. For the second consecutive season, the Terriers will ring in the arrival of SoCon play with a trip to just outside Birmingham, Ala., to encounter the Samford Bulldogs. Within that opponent, though, there has been some changes as well.

Early last June, the program -- which finished last year's campaign with a dismal 6-10 league mark -- parted ways with head coach Bennie Seltzer, Washington State alumnus and former assistant coach under Tom Crean, after two seasons at the helm. In his tenure, fourteen players transferred away from Birmingham, including Tim Williams, a standout who found himself with New Mexico this summer.

Scott Padgett, who had been a member of the Bulldog coaching staff since 2012, was selected as Seltzer's successor. "I'm not looking back," the former NBA player noted assuredly at his introduction. "...We're focused on the future."

Padgett, seen here working with a Samford player, was
named as the Bulldogs' new head coach in June.

There's been some variation in the starting lineup, as usual with any basketball team, but there's a few we can expect to see on the court when the ball is tipped on Saturday afternoon at the Pete Hanna Center. One of those is senior Tyler Hood, a 6-6 power forward who is averaging 11.5 points per game this season, a squad high. The Lenoir City, Tenn., native splashed onto the scene in 2012, garnering conference all-freshman honors for his work in making Samford a shooting threat.

Nnamdi Enechionyia, starting at strong forward, has a 37 percent shooting average on the year and averages about six-and-a-half points and three rebounds a game. Junior Jamal Shabazz plays an average of sixteen minutes a game, and is averaging about five points and three rebounds a contest.

The Bulldogs have three excellent options at point guard, a position highlighted by Darius Jones-Gibson, a junior out of Lexington, Ky., who is averaging a little over nine points a game, a mark which was aided by a strong ten-point showing in the outfit's last game, a 94-60 triumph over NAIA member Auburn-Montgomery. Marcus Johnston and Brandon Roberts provide some further depth for this squad.

Christen Cunningham is averaging over nine points and dishing out four-and-a-half assists a game from his shooting guard spot, a post backed by Evan Taylor, a freshman from Cincinnati, Ohio, who has played in fourteen games this season.

At center, time has been split this season between Michael Bradley and Alex Peters. The latter, a freshman from Mountain Brook, Ala., has gotten the start in the Bulldogs' last four contests -- victories over Presbyterian, Louisiana-Monroe, Campbell, and Auburn-Montgomery -- but it is the senior, Bradley, who has a statistical edge with 91 points and 87 rebounds on the season.

Can the Terriers, coming off a 29-point loss at Duke, strike a chord in
Saturday's SoCon opener?

Wofford, coming off a strong New Year's Eve outing at Duke, should be eager to get the conference schedule off to a strong start. Even prior to the season, there has been quite a chip on their shoulder, and they are often looked at as the "team to beat," even in an arguably wide-open league. No matter the strength of the opponent, a win in Saturday's contest may set a good precedent for the remainder of 2015.

Something that stands out is this program's response to pressure, whether it be in the form of watchful eyes in a major game, or just the connotations that come with winning a SoCon title. "Pressure isn't a burden to tough teams," assistant coach Tim Johnson told me in an interview before the season. "It's more of a privilege."

He continued, "The only pressure we focus on is internal. Teammates expecting teammates to give it their all every day. Players expecting coaches to be on edge and prepared. Coaches expecting the same from players."

Yes, it's traits like these that make this Terrier squad one for the ages. "I'm sure our team wants to be remembered as the greatest in school history," Johnson said. "What team wouldn't?"

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