MEAC / Spartan Men / Sports

Season preview: Spartans look to reload, not rebuild, in 2016-17

Fourth-year head coach Robert Jones enters the 2016-17 campaign much the same way he entered the 2014-15 season

Fourth-year head coach Robert Jones enters the 2016-17 campaign much the same way he entered the 2014-15 season

Norfolk State Men’s Basketball Season Opener

NSU at Mississippi State Friday, Nov. 11 8 p.m. EST Humphrey Coliseum
TV: SEC Network+ Live Video Live Stats Game Notes

The Norfolk State men’s basketball program has been down this road before. Just two years ago, NSU came into the new season looking to replace one of its winningest senior classes in Division I history. The Spartans had lost their top three scorers from the previous year, all double-digit scorers at that, and needed to find some new production for that new campaign.

It worked out well then. It could very much work out well again this year.

Fourth-year head coach Robert Jones enters the 2016-17 campaign much the same way he entered the 2014-15 season. That year, he needed to replace a trio of players who combined to average 42 points per game. He finds himself in the same predicament this year after losing senior guards Jeff Short, D’Shon Taylor and Charles Oliver, who combined to score almost 41 points per contest, or 54 percent of the team’s overall scoring.

It’s now time for a new crop of players to step up, as has been the case year after year the past decade, with no drop-off. The roster this season includes five returners and a whole host of newcomers with plenty of collegiate experience. Three Division I transfers and five junior college players will give the Spartans a very deep roster for the upcoming year.

Junior point guard Zaynah Robinson anchors the position for NSU and gives the Spartans a floor general to ease the transition for all the newbies. Robinson averaged slightly less than three assists per game last year while adding 6.2 points and posting one of the best 3-point shooting percentages (39.5) in the MEAC. With both of his backups from last year gone, Robinson will be counted on even more to be the full-time leader on offense.

Senior Jonathan Wade averaged 5.9 points per game last year in his first season with the program and was a solid complement off the bench to the departed threesome of Short, Taylor and Oliver. With those three now gone, the opportunity is there for the experienced Wade to take on an even bigger role in the offense and secure a starting spot in his final collegiate season.

To do so, he will have to battle a trio of high-scoring junior college guards for a starting spot. Juniors Micah Goss, Kyle Williams and Alex Brown all averaged at least 16 points per game last year for their respective junior colleges. All three are solid threats from beyond the arc and give NSU one of its deepest rotations of shooting guards in years.

The trio combined for 154 3-pointers during their sophomore seasons in junior college in 2015-16, and each shot at least 35 percent from beyond the arc. NSU, which shattered the school’s game and season records last year for 3-pointers, should see little if any at all slowdown from beyond the arc again this year.

That deep rotation is also bolstered by the addition of two Division I transfers. Senior Kerwin Okoro is finally ready to go after sitting out last year at NSU. Graduate transfer Carrington Ward, meanwhile, competed the last two years at North Texas but does not have to sit out thanks to NCAA grad transfer rules.

A big body at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Okoro brings plenty of toughness and a slasher’s mentality to the guard position. Ward averaged 4.1 points per game last year for North Texas and arrives just in time for NSU. Following the loss of two backup point guards from last year’s team, Ward has slid right in to the point guard position to complement Robinson.

NSU also has guard Steven Whitley sitting out this year after the sophomore played his rookie season last year at Robert Morris. At 6-3 and 225 pounds, the Norfolk native is a lot to handle for opposing defenders. Whitley too can handle the ball and should give the Spartans plenty of playmaking ability during practices this year.

NSU enters the year a lot stronger in the post after going with a four-guard lineup for much of last season. It starts with junior Jordan Butler, one of the best shot blockers in the conference. He started all but two games last year and tallied 7.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. The 6-6 Butler shot 55 percent from the floor despite being forced to play the center position most of the year. Butler now will be afforded the opportunity to slide back to his natural forward spot.

Sophomore Alex Long was a member of the MEAC All-Rookie Team after posting 5.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game during his freshman campaign. Forced to play a lot as a result of NSU’s lack of depth in the post, he too will benefit this year from not having to play out of position so much.

NSU’s fifth returning player, along with Robinson, Wade, Butler and Long, is senior Preston Bungei. He averaged 5.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and slightly less than one block per game playing as an undersized forward. After starting 12 games last year, the 6-6 Bungei will not need to play the strong forward position as much this season thanks to three newcomers.

Two of them give NSU a chance to carry a more balanced lineup this year, as juniors Dan Robinson and Bryan Gellineau take over the center position. The 6-11 Gellineau and the 7-0 Robinson will give NSU the size it lacked last year. Robinson sat out after arriving from Iona, where he saw limited action in two years. Gellineau was a nearly 56 percent field goal shooter last year at Essex County College.

Another ‘tweener’ for the Spartans is junior Stavian Allen, who arrived at NSU from Tallahassee CC. Like Bungei, the 6-7 Allen also straddles the line between guard and forward in the lineup. After averaging between five and six points per game during his junior college career, Allen gives the Spartans the ability to mix and match lineups based on what the opposition rolls out onto the court.

With very little separation among players, NSU opens the season Friday at Mississippi State with its starting lineup still very much in flux. The early part of the campaign will give Jones and his coaching staff the opportunity to test out various lineups in actual game situations in order to create a so-called depth chart.

The Spartans host Shenandoah on Sunday and Elizabeth City State next Tuesday to begin their home schedule. They also host Northern Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky in December. Before conference plays begins in January, NSU also has trips to Vanderbilt, Butler, Loyola Chicago, Niagara, Evansville, Purdue and Bowling Green as well as to Nevada for the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational during Thanksgiving break.


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