2007-08 Season Preview
Although he's entering just his second season at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, men's basketball coach Russ Caton knows more than his share about loss.
No, not the kind that occurs on the court. Quite the contrary, after posting a program-best 16-11 regular season record and qualifying for the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference playoffs for only the second time in school history, Caton is much more an expert on W's than L's.
Where Caton is becoming an expert on loss can be seen on the Mountain Lions' roster. First, he lost All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference forward Patrick Hannaway and center Bly McGuire, along with key reserve Patrick Simpson, to graduation. Next, starting off guard Joe Scott decided to transfer to a school in his home state of Minnesota. Those four combined for 58.6 percent of UCCS' points and 44.3 percent of its rebounds. In fact, the Mountain Lions' five returning players accounted for just 33.1 percent of the team's points in 2006-07 and 34.9 percent of the rebounds.
"I don't think we have the caliber of finisher, I don't know if anyone ever will, of Hannaway," said Caton. "He was one of the best finishers I think I've ever seen in the game."
As if that weren't enough, off-season injuries will sideline two prize recruits, freshman center Tommy Klausner and junior power forward Clint Napoleon, both of whom were likely starters. Finally, an eligibility technicality cost Caton another top recruit, guard Jared Giammona.
That's a lot of loss. But Caton's not the kind of person to dwell upon that.
"The nice thing about having those guys go down early is the roles hadn't been defined yet," said Caton. "If those injuries had happened during the year, it would have been a lot tougher for some of these guys to change their roles and have to step-up and do more than they have been asked to do."
But having players capable of stepping into that greater role is a new phenomenon at UCCS. It's possible, though, because Caton's recruiting class was among the best in school history. That gives rise to the hope that, despite the losses, the Mountain Lions could still be a playoff contender this season.
That hope begins at guard, where Nic Fuller returns to man the point. The senior accounted for 14.1 points and 3.8 assists per game while shooting a remarkable 51.7 percent from 3-point range. Springing him for more shot opportunities will be a priority for UCCS this season.
Joining Fuller will be Tomaul Hawkins, who came to UCCS the long way. After starring for two seasons at Otero Junior College, Hawkins was heavily recruited by several Division II schools and received interest from some Division I programs. While he waited for the D-I offers to materialize, the D-II schools all filled their positions. By the time it became clear that he would not be going D-I, his options had evaporated. Soon afterwards, he bumped into former JUCO teammate Fuller, who told him to call Caton, who had recently learned of Scott's departure.
The result of that long, winding road should be one of the RMAC's most dynamic backcourts.
"The nice thing about those guys is they're good on both ends of the floor," said Caton. "It seems like sometimes at this level you get guys that are really good at one end or the other. But, they really have all around games that are a handful at either end."
There is also some depth. Each year, one freshman shows up and does more than what the coach originally expected. Last season, that was Scott. This season, it could be Jordan McClung.
Also in the backcourt is super-quick Leo Thomas, who will get significant court time if he will play within the construct of the offense, and Bryan Winkel, who is a dangerous shooter that needs to improve on the defensive end. Freshman Abram Ziemer could also contribute as he adjusts to the speed and intensity of the college game.
The wild card is Frank McCollum, who is extremely athletic. He will be a force on both ends of the floor when he can install discipline into his game.
Caton was forced to give freshmen a lot of playing time last year and that could pay off big in the Mountain Lions' frontcourt this season. Kyle Perkins started every game as a freshman last year and is ready to assume a larger role this time around. Eric Davis played in every game, including six starts, and is the current frontrunner to assume the power forward slot.
Mountain Lion fans will notice the biggest change in Perkins. Last year he averaged 7.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as an undersized, defensive-minded power forward. He will move into the small forward slot vacated by Hannaway this season and will also be asked to pick up a larger chunk of the scoring load.
Perkins is primed to do just that.
"He really put some time in this summer and he's been shooting lights-out early on," said Caton. "He's lacking the experience that (Hannaway) brought, but I think he makes up for it defensively. I don't have a problem putting him on anybody."
Davis also played out of position much of last season. Although dwarfed by many of the RMAC's centers, Davis nonetheless played mostly in the post by using his considerable strength. Despite this size disadvantage, the Idaho Falls native led UCCS with an average of 12 rebounds per 40 minutes. His move to power forward will allow the Mountain Lions to take better advantage of his mobility and his ability to run the floor.
"Eric Davis just flat outworks everybody that plays against him," said Caton. "So, it's hard to deny him the opportunity to get in there and be in our top five."
Two more freshmen, Chris Fernandez and Rob Howe, will be called upon to spell the starters. Fernandez reminds onlookers of Perkins as a freshman with his ability to both drive the hoop and shoot the three. Howe, a post player in high school, still needs to refine his man-to-man defense but possesses outstanding skills and instincts.
"I couldn't be happier with the freshmen and the way that they're stepping up and trying to make their selves contributors right away," said Caton. "We've had some interesting things with our freshmen. A couple of kids I didn't expect to come in as strong as they have are really doing a great job."
In the post, the Mountain Lions have the unusual situation of having a pair of veterans that are nonetheless brand new to the program. Steven Clements transferred in from Trinidad State Junior College, while Josh Anfang played his first three collegiate seasons at Western State.
"(Clements is) a real big body and great finisher," said Caton. "If you come in and watch a practice, he's finishing around the bucket with two or three guys hanging on him all the time. His biggest downfall may be his conditioning, as fast and as hard as we run the floor, I don't know how many minutes we can get out of him."
That's why it's also good to have Anfang, who averaged 6.2 points and 3.8 rebounds per game for the Mountaineers last season.
"He's another guy that's got good strength and size and can finish around the bucket," said Caton, who then added with a chuckle. "We just need to keep him around there more. He likes to fade out a little bit too much."
Junior Hawk Caldwell will contribute at both forward and center. Caldwell is a high-effort player who will frustrate opponents.
So the question remains: Will the large quantity of good players make up for the high quality of the players lost?
"The thing about basketball is your really only as good as the worst guy on the floor," said Caton. "If you can have five strong players out there, that really can be the difference over just having one or two really great players.
"I think we have a better combination of players this year, which is going to make us a stronger team down the road."
UCCS Players/Staff Featured
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