ANDERSON, S.C. – After nearly doubling its win total last season from the 2015-16 campaign and making its first appearance in the South Atlantic Conference Tournament in three seasons, the Anderson University men's basketball team is just one day away from beginning the 2017-18 campaign.
When the Black and Gold tips off the 2017-18 campaign on Friday, the Trojans will be looking for a return to the postseason for the second straight year after a two-year absence. Entering his third season at the helm of the program, Head Coach Jeff Brookman will be looking to blend a talented roster that features four returning starters from last year's squad that went 13-16 overall and 11-11 in the league, among nine letterwinners and six newcomers.
"I believe we'll be able to shoot the ball [well]," said Brookman. "We have 3-4 guys who can really shoot it. We'll be able to space the floor with some shooters, but at the same time we have a good mix with guys that can drive it. When we put those together, we'll be hard to guard. We can defend a little better than last year and we'll have to be toward the top of the league again defensively if we want to compete."
AU was tabbed seventh in the South Atlantic Conference Preseason Coaches' Poll, which was released earlier this week and with eight of the Trojans' games last season being decided by a total of 29 points - an average of 3.6 points - and going 1-4 in games that were tied with five minutes to go, AU will be seeking to improve on its success in close games in 2017-18.
With an experienced, veteran squad, Brookman said "the more experience you get in those types of games, the better your chances are of winning those games."
With three of the top four scorers returning, Brookman's squad has more than 83 percent of its scoring output and nearly two-thirds of its rebounding coming back from a season ago.
"It's good to have guys that have been around and have played in big games and know what to expect," Brookman noted. "It's obviously good to have guys back, but if you look at the top of our league – all the teams have a lot of returning starters, so it can go both ways."
Junior guard Randall Shaw earned Preseason First-team All-South Atlantic Conference honors earlier this week after capturing postseason accolades following each of his first two seasons wearing the Black and Gold. He was second in the conference with 20.6 points per contest a year ago and needs just 31 points to become the 13th player in school history to reach 1,000 career points.
"Randall is a very talented player," added Brookman. "He's one of the best scorers in the league and he shot for a high percentage last year. He knows how to put the ball in the basket."
Shaw's running mate in the backcourt, senior guard Maurice Howard, has drawn a starting nod in nearly 60 games over the last three seasons and was third on the team by averaging 9.2 points and 4.1 rebounds per game last season. The Saluda, S.C., native led the Trojans and ranked seventh in the conference with 3.55 assists per game.
"Maurice has been very good this preseason," said Brookman. "He's been leading in practice and shown good leadership. He's always going to play hard – you don't have to worry about him taking any nights off. Maurice has improved his shooting and he's been keeping things simple."
Junior Andrew Boynton reached double-figure scoring in 10 games a season ago, while averaging 7.4 points per game over 29 contests. A native of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the 6-foot-1 guard led the team and ranked seventh in the league by shooting 43.8 percent from beyond the arc.
"Andrew will give you 100 percent every time he steps on the court," added Brookman. "The way he works over the summers and improves year-to-year is a testament to how hard he works. I will be surprised if he isn't one of the better 3-point shooters in our conference. He's been shooting it with confidence in practice."
Sophomore guard Christian Jeffords made his mark in the conference record books a year ago, when he drained nine treys in the home win over Newberry. His exceptional night equaled the 10th-highest total in the conference record books, as he misfired on just one 3-point attempt and finished the contest with a career-high 37 points.
"Christian is another player that improved over the summer," noted Brookman. "He's one of the best shooters in the league, but what I'm most impressed with is his improvement defensively. He's really competing and focused on getting better defensively. He can space the floor with his 3-point shooting ability and he's going to give you 100 percent every time he steps out onto the court."
Brookman said of junior guard Gage Ellis, "He is extremely talented. Gage is long, athletic and he knows how to put the ball in the basket and score. Gage gives us a little different dimension on the wing. He'll be a good rebounding guard and he can defend his position."
Josh Livingston is a versatile freshman who averaged nearly a double-double, with 20 points and nine boards during his senior season at North Myrtle Beach High School and earned all-state recognition.
"Josh has been a pleasant surprise," said Brookman. "He's starting to figure things out. He plays hard, can really shoot it and is going to play both on the perimeter and in the post. He rebounds and is athletic around the basket and can stretch the floor. He'll get some playing time."
Jordan Jeffries is a freshman out of The Burlington School in Burlington, N.C., who also lettered in track and field.
"Jordan is a true point guard," noted Brookman. "He is a little smaller, but is as tough as nails. There's nothing he won't do on the court – he'll draw a charge, make the right pass, make the right play and play defense."
Freshman Myliek Durham, a 6-1 freshman guard from Rock Hill, S.C., was a four-year letterwinner at Northwestern High School who was named the Region Player of the Year after capturing all-region and all-state honors with the Trojans.
"Myliek is a very talented freshman," added Brookman. "He can do a little bit of everything - drive it, shoot it and he's a great defender. Myliek is extremely strong and athletic."
Josh Stoffregen, a 5-foot-10 guard from Raleigh, N.C., finished his prep career as the all-time school leader in points, assists, steals and field goals made, while earning all-conference accolades three times.
"John comes to practice and works hard every day," added Brookman. "He can really shoot the ball from three."
Jeremy Bouton is a 6-foot-6 forward who has seen action in 55 contests over his first two seasons in the Electric City. He averaged more than nine points and nearly six rebounds, while drawing a starting nod in every game last season and scoring in double figures on 10 occasions.
"I have a feeling Jeremy will have a breakout year," added Brookman. "He's improved every year and I believe he's going to take another step forward. He's been playing with a lot of confidence. He's been competing, making shots and defending. I'm excited to see what Jeremy is going to do this year."
After missing all of last season with an injury, the return of 6-foot-7 center Rakish Taylor will bolster Anderson's inside presence. The Irmo, S.C., native played in all 28 games two seasons ago, while starting 27 contests. He led the team and ranked second in the SAC with 8.6 rebounds per game, while averaging 8.8 points per contest and recorded seven double-doubles during the 2015-16 season.
"Getting Rakish back will be a big help around the basket," said Brookman. "I'm excited for Rakish. He has taken advantage of the opportunity and has done things the right way on and off the court."
Lester Rochez, a 6-foot-9 center, averaged nearly 10 minutes a contest before suffering a season-ending injury nine games into the 2016-17 campaign, while scoring a season-high 13 points and pulling down 11 rebounds in an early-season win over Armstrong State.
Senior Luke Musselwhile saw action in 23 games last season, while getting a starting nod in two. He scored a season-high eight points in a home loss to Carson-Newman and pulled down a season-high seven rebounds in the home win over Tusculum. Musselwhite's four blocked shots against Tusculum marked the most by an individual player since Kyle Sledge recorded four rejections in the Trojans' 82-72 win at Coker in 2014.
"Luke is an athletic stretch four who has the ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter," said Brookman. "He has improved on both ends of the floor over the summer."
Jason Edwards, a 6-foot-10 newcomer from Sydney, Australia, also competed in baseball and softball at East Hills High, while averaging 26 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and eight blocks per contest as a senior.
"Jason is coming along very well," said Brookman. "I'm excited. He wants to be good and works hard. Jason has a chance to be a good player. He enjoys being on the court and is getting better every day. Jason will play some minutes."
"We want to build on last year," said Brookman. "Hopefully we can improve each day in practice and then from game-to-game. By the end of the season we are looking to have made some big strides toward getting better every year. It's always good to see improvement. I thought going 11-11 in the conference was a big stepping stone for us when we were playing a lot of young guys. Now those young guys are a year older and we have some upperclassmen on the roster"
The Trojans' 2017-18 slate features seven games against four opponents that made an appearance in last season's NCAA Division II Tournament.
The schedule is evenly balanced, featuring 14 road contests and 14 games on the Abney Center hardwood. In addition to the grueling 20-game South Atlantic Conference schedule, the Trojans will square off against seven nonconference opponents.
AU opens at home for the first time since the 2012-13 campaign, as four of the Trojans' first five contests are in the Electric City, with AU opening the campaign in a conference challenge for the fifth consecutive season and seventh time in the last eight years. This season marks the first time AU will host a four-team inter-conference challenge and the format includes Southern Wesleyan from Conference Carolinas, along with Lander from the Peach Belt and fellow SAC-member Carson-Newman.
AU remains at home for a Nov. 15 contest against Limestone, which shared the top spot in the Conference Carolinas with a 17-3 record last season. The Saints advanced to the second round of the NCAA Southeast Regional for the first time in school history before falling to Queens on the Royals' home court in Charlotte. The Trojans open their road slate three days later versus longtime rival Erskine, with AU looking for its seventh victory in 10 matchups with the Flying Fleet.
The Black and Gold returns to the Electric City for a brief one-game homestand when USC Aiken invades the Abney Center on Nov. 21 for the first time since the 1996-97 campaign. Following a week-long break for Thanksgiving, Anderson opens its longest road swing of the campaign by traveling to Johnson C. Smith for the first time in school history on Nov. 28 and visiting Southern Wesleyan two days later. Carson-Newman returns to the Abney Center hardwood for the third time in less than five weeks when the Trojans open their longest homestand of the season with the Eagles.
Queens, with 12 returning letterwinners, including four starters, will be looking for its eighth consecutive win over the Trojans after a stellar season a year ago. The high-powered Newberry offense is next up for the Trojans, as the Wolves invade the Abney Center on Dec. 13 after notching 18 victories last season. AU equals its longest road swing by closing out the month of December with three straight contests, beginning with Catawba in Salisbury, N.C., on Dec. 16 and following a two-week break for Christmas, the Trojans renew an old Conference Carolinas' rivalry by squaring off against Lees-McRae in the Tar Heel State. The Black and Gold open the New Year with a daunting challenge, as AU visits Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 3.
The Trojans return to the Electric City to play host to Wingate (Jan. 6) and Mars Hill (Jan. 10) in a brief two-game homestand, with the Bulldogs looking for their third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament and 12th overall in 2017-18. AU wraps up the first half of the league's double round-robin schedule by traveling to Coker (Jan. 13) and Tusculum (Jan. 17), then opens the second half of the SAC schedule by traveling to Lenoir-Rhyne (Jan. 20), while playing five of its final nine regular-season contests on the road.
The 2018 South Atlantic Conference Tournament will feature the top eight teams in the league squaring off on Wednesday, Feb. 27 at the home sites of the four top seeds, with the tournament semifinals and championship slated to be held on Saturday and Sunday, March 3-4, at Timmons Arena in Greenville, S.C. for the seventh consecutive season.