To the victors go the spoils
Just 12 months after being picked last in the Great American Conference preseason men’s basketball coaches’ poll, the same group has overwhelmingly tabbed the University of Arkansas at Monticello to win it all in 2017-18.
Not that the Boll Weevils, returning every player but one off a 23-7 team, gave Kyle Tolin’s peers much of a choice. UAM enters this winter after finishing with a 17-5 GAC record during the 2016-17 season—good enough for a first-place tie in the regular season with East Central University—and an NCAA Division II Central Region Tournament appearance.
With four starters coming back, including last year’s GAC Newcomer of the Year in Derylton Hill, the Weevils have gone from being the hunter to the hunted. UAM collected 121 points and 11 first-place votes in the poll to easily outdistance second-place Arkansas Tech University, which earned 98 points and the 12th first-place vote (simply because coaches were prohibited from voting on their own teams to win the conference).
East Central, last year’s conference tournament champion, finished third in the voting with 97 points, followed by Southern Nazarene University (91), Harding University (83) and Henderson State University (58). Southern Arkansas University (57), Ouachita Baptist University (55), Southwestern Oklahoma State University (46), Southeastern Oklahoma State University (44), Northwestern Oklahoma State University (22) and Oklahoma Baptist University (20) are the bottom six teams in this year’s coaches’ poll.
“It is definitely a different deal,” said Tolin, the reigning GAC Coach of the Year, of the worst-to-first poll scenario. “This is where we want the program to be, though. You always want to be on top and have people ready to play against you at a high level.
“Really, the poll doesn’t mean much to me—just like it didn’t last year. It is the same coaches that voted us last last year. We need to stay humble and understand the process and work that went into last year to be good.
“We haven’t talked about (the poll) and probably won’t. We need to continue to get better and understand it’s not going to just happen.”
During the 2016-17 season, UAM–which also enters the winter ranked No. 20 in the DII Bulletin’s Top 25—set a ton of men’s basketball school records, including consecutive wins (15), best start (14-0), highest winning percentage (.767), most conference wins (17), most assists in a season (497) and most assists per game in a season (16.8). The 23-7 record was the second-best overall mark in school history, following only the 1985-86 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics National runners-up, who ended with 26 victories.
Besides Hill, who was named to the All-GAC first team, the Weevils welcome back All-GAC second teamers Cobe Goosby and Karim Mawuenyega. The fourth senior starter is Tyrin Jones. Classmates Stephon Gordon, Tayte Kitts and Troy Thomas will also once again be wearing Kelly Green and White, as will sophomores Hunter Daley and Brandon England.
Rounding out this year’s roster will be senior Tedrian Brisco, and juniors Jamil Maddred, Keelin Jackson and Jarred Heard.
This time a year ago, the Weevils entered the season picked last in the preseason mainly because of an 8-20 season in 2014-15. They became the most improved team in DII, winning 15 more games and claiming notoriety as the only team in DII to win a regular-season title after being picked last in their conference’s preseason poll.
Both Tech and East Central joined UAM in the NCAA Central Region Tournament. The Wonder Boys led the conference in scoring despite not having an individual rank in the top 10. They bring back three starters—Alex Brown, Montrell Williams and Freddy Lee. Brown and Williams both averaged double figures while Lee averaged more than 5.0 assists per game.
ECU not only shared the regular-season title with the Weevils, it earned a first-round win at the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers must replace GAC Player of the Year and All-American Braxton Reeves plus second-team All-GAC forward Ishmael Donzo. They return Camron Talley, who averaged 9.8 points and shot 51.2 percent from the three-point stripe as a freshman, along with Brett Cannon, the team’s leader in assists.
Southern Nazarene’s Crimson Storm produced their best season in the GAC, posting a 15-7 league record. They return Jhonathan Dunn, the GAC’s Freshman of the Year. He led the team in scoring and 3-point percentage. Harding brings back Tim Wagner, who averaged 17.1 points in his first season in Searcy and welcomes back Reggie Anthony. He averaged 11.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 2015-16.
Henderson State, Southern Arkansas and Ouachita were separated by a total of three points in this year’s poll. The Reddies and Muleriders both return their top scorers—Kaylon Tappin for HSU and C.J. Elkins for SAU.
Southwestern Oklahoma’s Bulldogs bring back five players that combined for 80 starts. Devin Pugh ranked second on the team with 13.1 points and third with 4.1 rebounds. SOSU’s Jett Jobe ranked second in the GAC with 5.3 assists per game.
Northwestern Oklahoma returns three starters, headlined by Brandon Green, who led the conference in assists, and Cody Halvorson, the GAC’s top returner in made three-pointers. Oklahoma Baptist, eligible for GAC and NCAA postseason for the first time, bring back Chandler Rickey and Vladimir Nemcok, who combined to lead the team in scoring, rebounding, blocks, assists and field-goal percentage.
The season opens on Friday, Nov. 10 with eight schools competing in region crossover tournaments. The 2018 GAC Championships takes place from March 1-4, 2018 in Bartlesville, Okla.