NORFOLK, Va. (NSUSpartans.com) - Last season, Norfolk State men's basketball had to break in more than 10 new players. Despite having a whole new team, the Spartans still finished second in the MEAC regular season standings at 12-4 before the campaign was shut down due to COVID-19. But as they enter an uncertain 2020-21 season with the coronavirus still ongoing, one thing that is certain is that the Spartans will have plenty of experience to lean on.
The Spartans open their season with a noon matchup against James Madison on Friday.
Norfolk State returns 10 letterwinners from a season ago, and of its four newcomers, three bring Division I experience. Nine of the 14 players on the team this year will have either junior or senior eligibility. And despite losing a pair of All-MEAC players in departed seniors Steven Whitley and Jermaine Bishop, the Spartans have no plans on slowing down this year or anytime soon. Having that depth and experience will be important for teams this year.
"Depth is something that's really going to be needed," said head coach Robert Jones. "I do like our depth. That's probably the biggest thing that sticks out to me right now. We have a lot of interchangeable parts without a lot of drop off. I'm excited about our depth, but there is a lot of uncertainty still."
Still, losing two players who combined to score more than 25 points per game is something that cannot be brushed off. When one of those players sets the school record for 3-pointers in a season as Bishop did with 98, again, that type of production cannot be easily replaced. Losing valuable practice time throughout the summer and during part of the fall semester adds even more to the challenge.
"The preseason has been real challenging with COVID and all the precautions that we have to do," said Jones. "Because we lost so much valuable workout time, some of our players weren't in the best shape as they normally would be, so that's been challenging too.
"Navigating through this whole thing, it's just a day-by-day process. It's all fluid. Every day we learn a little bit more about what's going to happen or the different protocols and safety measures. It's been tough to navigate."
After finishing 16-15 overall but having the season shut down before their first game in the MEAC Tournament, the Spartans are taking it day-by-day as they look to get past last year's ending. The Spartans can put everything in the rearview mirror beginning Friday when they take on James Madison on the road, followed by a contest against Radford on Saturday at JMU's new Atlantic Union Bank Center.
Below is a position breakdown as NSU steers through everything and heads into a new campaign.
The Spartans will have options to spread the wealth around on offense. Those options start with a pair of players who can each assume the role of Batman after playing the role of Robin last year at times to Bishop and Whitley. Preseason All-MEAC second-team honoree Joe Bryant Jr. and preseason third-teamer Devante Carter will look to step up after solid campaigns last year.
Bryant finished second on the team behind Bishop with 12.0 points per game. He averaged close to four rebounds and more than two assists while making nearly 50 3-pointers on the season. Bryant also shot better than 90 percent from the free throw line to set the school record. After a breakout sophomore season, can he turn the corner even more as a junior and become one of the top players in the league?
Carter, meanwhile, will look to put together a strong senior campaign after averaging 9.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game last year. He split point guard duties with Whitley while also showing the ability to get to the rim. An improved shooting game could allow Carter to thrive in NSU's offense as the Spartans look to replace Bishop's 3-point shooting.
One thing that will not slow down is NSU's defense. Bryant and Carter combined for more than 100 steals and each ranked in the top 100 nationally in steals per game. And no matter how much time was lost, it is easier to overcome that on the defensive side of the ball.
"Even though there's different rotations and things to worry about and do the right way to have a good defensive team, defense is a lot of times about effort and heart," said Jones. "If you can have some intensity and effort, you can be a halfway good defensive team, even early. We're hoping our defense can generate some offense early for us as our offense continues to get better throughout the season."
Aside from Bryant and Carter, no other returner averaged five points per game. The question then becomes, who steps up into a bigger role this year? And how will the three D-I transfers fit into NSU's offensive and defensive schemes? Having so many returners has helped the coaching staff move forward, although each year is different.
"Having so many returners does help," added Jones. "But it's still meshing those guys with the new players, even though we don't have very many new players. It's just putting it all together. Every team is different, no matter how many returners there are. There's a different make up to every team."
One returner who could have a breakout sophomore season much like Bryant did last year is Tyrese Jenkins. He finished with 4.5 points and 2.1 rebounds, but he tallied more than six points per game in conference play to earn a spot on the MEAC All-Rookie Team. Can that surge late in his rookie season translate to his sophomore year despite all the practice time lost during the summer and early fall due to COVID?
NSU has always been solid at the guard spots, and it's no different this year thanks also in part to the additions of senior Fresno State transfer Mustafa Lawrence and junior Robert Morris transfer Jalen Hawkins. Lawrence could do a little bit of everything for the Spartans after tallying 6.4 points and 2.9 assists last year for Fresno State.
Hawkins, meanwhile, posted 7.3 points and 3.2 rebounds for a Robert Morris team that was set to appear in the NCAA Tournament before COVID shut it down. Both have point guard experience but both D-I transfers could also give NSU a boost on offense, including beyond the 3-point arc, as they battle for playing time.
Senior Kashaun Hicks averaged nearly five points per game last year – the team's third-leading returning scorer – and was third on the team with 24 3-pointers. He shot better than 37 percent from beyond the arc and nearly 79 percent from the free throw line. He too will have a chance to step up with Whitley, Bishop and guard/forward Spirit Ricks all having departed.
Entering his third year on the court with the Spartans, senior Kyonze Chavis posted 3.1 points and 1.7 rebounds a year ago. More importantly, he brought plenty of energy to the team as a glue guy off the bench. Will that effort pay off in his final year of eligibility with a bigger role?
Sophomore sharpshooter Daryl Anderson is looking to expand his role on the team with Bishop gone. Anderson made 14 3-pointers on 29 attempts last year and could be another important option as NSU attempts to spread the wealth around on offense.
Freshman walk-on Andre Bottoms also adds to that depth Jones spoke of. A local product from Chesapeake's Oscar Smith High School, Bottoms finished his high school career as both a 1,000-point scorer and his school's all-time leading assist leader.
The Spartans certainly did not bring in D-I transfers just to sit the bench. And one player who could play a big part in NSU's success is Arkansas State transfer J.J. Matthews. The 6-foot-9 forward averaged 8.7 points and 4.8 rebounds as a regular starter last year with the Red Wolves. As a senior, Matthews has the experience to give the team one of its strongest post presences in several years.
As the season gets underway for Matthews and the rest of his teammates, the Spartans know that the uncertainty of the coronavirus means not taking anything for granted. It was a hard lesson they learned last year.
"You never know when your last game is going to be played. Last year we never got a chance to play in the MEAC Tournament," added Jones. "We didn't know our last game was going to be against Morgan State on the road (regular season finale). It's an old cliché that coaches use, to play every day like it might be your last. Last year it was our last, and we had no control over that. So it's almost the same theory this year."
That lesson was even harder for senior Efstratios Kalogerias, a native of Greece who ended last season with several of his best games of the entire year. He tallied 3.2 points and 2.4 rebounds, and is one of several returning post players looking to take big steps forward. After adjusting to the physicality of D-I play, a bigger Kalogerias could use that first-year experience at NSU to propel himself to even bigger things in his second year with the Spartans.
Junior Chris Ford is another post player whose numbers – 3.6 points and 3.3 rebounds – could make a large jump after another year in the NSU system. A player who greatly improved his conditioning and his understanding of NSU's system, Ford will be counted on to take another step in his development as the Spartans look to add a lot more scoring from the post.
Sophomore Yoro Sidibe could add to that post scoring after he started last year on a strong note. After slowing down as the season wore on, he did end the year with his second double-digit scoring effort of his freshman season. The talent is there for Sidibe to contribute in a much bigger role to NSU's efforts on both ends of the floor after averaging 3.6 points and 3.1 rebounds. Like Kalogerias, Sidibe can stretch the floor and open up the lanes for the rest of the offense.
Sophomore Nyzaiah Chambers shot 57 percent from the floor in a limited role last year, averaging 1.8 points and 1.2 rebounds. After a year of development under NSU's coaches, more playing time could be in store for the local product.
As the Spartans begin their 2020-21 campaign this week, Jones summed it up best with regards to expectations.
"The first two games are going to be a feeling-out process," said Jones. "That's the first time we're going to play against competition other than green and gold everyday. Some things might look bad to me in practice but might be great in the game and vise versa. Those first two games back-to-back are really going to be feeler-out games to see where we really are as a team and as a program."