UAFS men’s basketball coach Josh Newman has several reasons to be excited about the season after his Lions put a late scare into NCAA Division I TCU before losing 81-74 on the Horned Frogs’ home court last week.
It’s been a preseason of rapid improvement for the Lions, who will open the regular season at 4 p.m. on Saturday against Central Baptist College at the Stubblefield Center. Live stats and webcast will be available by visiting Lions Fan Central on the UAFS athletics website (www.uafortsmithlions.com), and the game will be broadcast on KFPW-AM 1230 and via the Internet at www.sportshog1031.com.
"I’ve been pleased with our scrimmages and exhibition game," Newman said. "We’ve had a chance to see our growth and development from day one, and I believe we are progressing in the right direction. I think I can speak for everyone when I say we are excited that the season is finally here."
UAFS begins its fifth season as a NCAA Division II member and its third as an active member. The Lions finished 16-12 overall last season, winning the Heartland Conference regular-season title and finishing as conference tournament runner-up.
Nine players return from that team, including three returning starters and one sixth man.
Junior guard Dusan Stojanovic, a 6-foot-7 guard from Lazarevac, Serbia, started all 28 games and averaged 6.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game and had 39 assists, seven blocks and 18 steals. Senior guard Xavier McClish, a 6-3 guard from Midwest City, Okla., started 19 of the 27 games he played and averaged eight points and 2.2 rebounds per game and had 76 assists, two blocks and 34 steals. Senior guard Corey Copeland, a 6-4 guard from Fort Smith, started 16 of the 27 games he played and averaged 9.3 points and 3.4 rebounds per game and had 26 assists and 11 steals.
Senior guard Jake Toupal, a 6-3 guard from Broken Arrow, Okla., came off the bench to lead the Lions in scoring with 13.7 points per game and collected 3.7 rebounds per game. The Second Team All-Conference performer had 29 assists, eight blocks and 33 steals.
Also returning are junior Blake Branham, a 6-foot guard from Hackett, Ark., senior Bo Franklin, a 6-6 forward from Morganza, La., sophomore Mytaa’h Crawford, a 6-3 guard from Springdale, Ark., junior Miha Glavas, a 6-6 guard from Ljubljana, Slovenia, and redshirt freshman LJ Ross, a 6-8 forward from Tulsa, Okla.
"Experience is always key," Newman said. "When you have returners with experience, they know what to expect and hopefully how to respond during a game and over the course of the season. I think our returners have learned what it takes to take the next step, and hopefully, we will be able to do that this year as a team."
Newman and his staff enjoyed a successful recruiting year during the offseason, signing seven newcomers. Four of those newcomers, Newman said, will make an immediate impact for the Lions – freshman Seth Youngblood, a 6-1 guard from Roland, Okla., freshman Alex Cooper, a 6-1 guard from Dallas, Texas, sophomore Kenny Martin, a 6-10 forward from Tuscon, Ariz., and junior guard Tramel White, a 6-3 guard from Houma, La.
Martin is a NCAA Division I transfer from Arizona State, and White is a junior college transfer from Dodge City Community College.
Freshman Kyle Baker, a 6-2 guard from Kansas City, Mo., freshman Tim Boyd, a 5-10 guard from Conway, Ark., and freshman DaVaunta Thomas, a 6-5 guard from Tulsa, Okla., are expected to redshirt this season.
"I honestly believe all the newcomers, except the three redshirts, will play significant minutes all year long as well as challenge returners for starting minutes," Newman said. "Our team is very deep and talented, which makes practice and everything else we do extremely competitive.
Newman said he’s been pleased with how quickly the newcomers have adapted to the UAFS philosophy.
"I’ve been pleased with their work ethic and attitude towards fitting into our standards here at UAFS," Newman said.
With a solid corps of returning players and the newcomers learning the system quickly, Newman said depth will be one of the Lions’ strengths early in the season.
"Early, our depth and ability to create an up-tempo style of play will be our strength," Newman said. "We will really be counting on our defense early as our offense is still working on timing and reads."
UAFS is the preseason favorite to win its second consecutive regular-season conference title, but those early high expectations haven’t fazed the Lions at all, Newman said.
"We just go about our business as usual," Newman said. "We have high expectations and goals as a program. Regardless if the league picks us first or last, we expect to be in a position to win a conference championship, and every day we work towards those expectations. We are trying to continue the tradition that our basketball program has had since the days as Fort Smith Junior College, and that’s to have the best team on the floor every night."