The UNCG men's basketball team opens preseason practice on Friday at 7 pm. Ten players return from last year's squad, including all five regular starters.
This past summer, several of the pre-season prognosticators gave indications that UNC Greensboro was the team to beat in the Southern Conference’s North Division. Much of that was based most likely on the fact that UNCG returns all five starters and 10 of 15 people from last year’s roster. Further, the Spartans return Kyle Hines and Ricky Hickman, the all-conference frontcourt-backcourt tandem that combined for more than 1,000 points – over 500 each – last season. That number in itself lends heavily towards the fact that UNCG is returning better than 90 percent of its scoring and rebounding from last season.
So you can see why several summer magazines picked UNCG atop the North Division for this season. However, the fact remains that UNCG was 12-19 last year, including 4-10 in the Southern Conference. While the returning nucleus is another year older and has a year under its belts with head coach Mike Dement, who returned to UNCG for his second stint as coach last season, the fact remains that the Spartans have to cut down on the mistakes that led to their fifth place finish in the SoCon North last season.
"We got off to a good start (7-3) and then had to face Duke and North Carolina State in back-to-back games around New Year’s and that took a lot out of us," said Dement.
"It wasn’t that we didn’t do a lot of good things down the stretch (UNCG went just five of their last 21 games). We found ourselves in a lot of possession-to-possession games late in the season. It just seemed that some aspect of our game would not be up to par and we couldn’t put together the kind of 40 minutes we were capable of and what we needed to have to win the game. Sometimes it would be defensive; sometimes it would be free throw shooting; sometimes it would be offensive execution; sometimes it would be a little bit of everything.
"Right down to the very last game in the SoCon quarterfinals, we have three shots to win it against Elon at the end of regulation, all three are within a couple feet of the basket, and we can’t find a way to do it. We go on to lose the game in overtime. That was our season in a nutshell. It was there for us to take, and yet it was just out of our reach.
"We need to cut down on mistakes and play like a mature, poised basketball team this season."
Certainly one would expect Hines and Hickman to be the focus of the returning group. Hickman, a senior from nearby Kernersville, NC, is already a 1,000-point scorer in his career. He enters the season in ninth place all-time at UNCG with 1,114 points. Last year, he scored in double-figures in every game but one. To go along with his 18.7 ppg scoring average, which was fourth in the Southern Conference, he was also tops in the league in steals at 2.75 per game.
Hines, a junior from Sicklerville, NJ, who earned USBWA All-District honors, proved quite often last season that there was nothing to be said about a sophomore jinx. The 6-6 forward who had earned the Southern Conference’s Freshman of the Year award in 2004-05 was only second in the league in scoring, first in rebounding, second in field goal percentage (missing out on first place by .002 percentage points and having 108 more field goals more than the leader), first in blocks and seventh in steals. He also led the SoCon in double-doubles with 11 and broke UNCG’s career record for blocks during his sophomore season.
Dwayne Johnson became more of a scoring presence last season and will return to run the offense from the point guard slot. The 5-9 native of Queens, NY, averaged 5.0 ppg, but just the fact that his field goal attempts more than doubled (52 to 118) from his freshman season to sophomore season showed the maturation process that Johnson’s game was undergoing.
David McClenny, a 6-9 forward from Raleigh, earned SoCon All-Freshman honors last season, averaging 5.2 ppg. He appeared in all 31 games with 12 starts and played very well in the latter half of the season. McClenny played 30 or more minutes in seven of UNCG’s final 10 games last season.
Kevin Oleksiak, a junior guard from Abington, PA, averaged 12.1 ppg last season. He had a school-record nine three-pointers in one game last season and scored 10 or more points in 22 of 31 contests. Oleksiak was slowed late in the season by an injury, but will look to regain the shooting stroke that he began last season with.
Everson Simmons, a 6-5 swingman, saw substantial playing time last season as a freshman and will look to continue that this season. Simmons played in all 31 contests as a rookie last season.
Bart Tooms, a 6-11 forward from Amsterdam, Holland, had an up-and-down season last year in his first year on the Division I level. He played in all 31 games last year with 13 starts, averaging 3.9 ppg.
Also figuring into the frontcourt is athletic forward Matt Akinosho. Akinosho began the season as a starter and became one of the first people off the bench as McClenny moved into the starting five. But Akinosho played double-digit minutes in 18 of the 29 games he appeared in and will be needed for some valuable minutes again this season.
Senior walk-on guard Donald Moore saw increased playing time in the latter part of the season last year. Moore stepped up and played some valuable minutes when Oleksiak went down with his injury late and filled in at other times when the guard rotation was shorthanded. The Greensboro, NC native played in 14 games last season with three starts.
Another walk-on, Greg Vlazy, also returns to the roster this season. Vlazny, a native of Cary, NC who made the team in pre-season workouts last year, played in four games last year as a reserve.
Among the five incoming recruits, there are several players among the newcomers that may be an immediate impact. Freshman guard Mikko Koivisto, a 6-4 native of Finland, averaged 19.0 ppg last season at Holy Cross Regional School in Lynchburg, VA. Shooting better than 40 percent from behind the three-point arc, he knocked down a school-record 12 in one game last season, showing his ability to light it up from the outside.
Omar Jones and Kendall Toney are two additional backcourt newcomers who could contribute immediately. A 1,000-point scorer at North Lenoir HS, Jones is a 6-5 combo guard who averaged 22 points per game last season to earn third-team all-state honors. He was a finalist for Kinston Press Player of the Year honors.
Toney was UNCG’s lone early signee a year ago. He spent his senior season at Gaston Day School after attending Charlotte’s Phillip O’Berry for his first three years of high school. He earned NCISAA all-state honors at Gaston Day, averaging better than 16 points per contest.
Pete Brown, a 6-7 forward from northern New Jersey, may be cut from the same mold as Hines. Although it might be a little too early to compare, Brown has a similar build to Hines and was overlooked by many, similar to the way Hines was. Brown, who reminds Dement of former Spartan Eric Cuthrell, averaged a double-double at Don Bosco Prep last year in his first season in the spotlight. His sophomore season, Don Bosco featured current John Oates, currently in the frontcourt at Boston College. In Brown’s junior season, Tyrell Biggs, now at Pittsburgh, was the focal point of the frontcourt.
Another promising young frontcourt player is Charlotte, NC, native Ben Stywall. Stywall spent his high school career at North Mecklenburg HS before enrolling at Fork Union Mililtary Academy in Virginia for a year of prep school. At North Mecklenburg, Stywall averaged 15.4 ppg and 10.9 rpg as a senior, leading his squad to a 26-1 mark and the North Carolina 4A state title. The team was ranked No. 16 in the nation.
At Fork Union last year, the 6-5 Stywall was ranked one of the Top 125 fifth-year players in the nation according to Hoop Scoop. He averaged 16 points and 10.5 rebounds per contest at Fork Union and was one of six players from that squad to move on to the Division I level this season.
The Spartans open the 2006-07 season with a difficult road swing. UNCG will open the season at Marshall on Saturday, Nov. 11, followed by a game at Penn State on November 13 and at Duke on Nov. 16. UNCG’s home opener may not be any easier when it hosts a rebuilt East Carolina team looking for revenge after the Spartans won in Greenville last year.
UNCG will host Belmont Abbey in an exhibition contest on Nov. 4 at Fleming Gym.
- UNCG -