Dan Nielson joins podcast
Josie Williams is a preseason All-WAC selection and hopes to help Utah Valley build off a successful 2019-20 season under second year head coach Dan Nielson. Courtesy UVU Athletics.

WAC Hoops Media Session via Zoom – Day Two

Each media session during a conference media day is always a good time. Sometimes, there are things you learn. Other times, information is repeated from previous interviews. It happens. But, on Wednesday, at the second day of WAC basketball media interviews, there were some interesting takeaways. 

Tarleton State men’s basketball has a handful of exciting non-conference games. The Texans also have an interesting mindset going into 2020-21. For the Tarleton women, three straight 20-plus win seasons are on the line in 2020-21. 

For Utah Valley head coach Mark Madsen, 2020-21 is about getting the most out of a new player. On the women’s side, second-year head coach Dan Nielson wants to keep the culture change going despite having a big target on his team. 

At Seattle U, both the men’s and women’s teams have to replace a lot of offensive firepower. However, team chemistry doesn’t seem to be an issue, especially on the men’s side. Head coach Jim Hayford recruited three players from the same junior college as a way to minimize chemistry issues with 11 new players. 

Here are some of the takeaways from Wednesday’s media session.

Grigsby, Nettles are True Leaders 

The Seattle U basketball teams lost perhaps some of the best players to come through the program in 2019-20. 1,000-point scorers Morgan Means and Terrell Brown are gone from the men’s side.

Riley Grigsby, along with teammate Aaron Nettles, are the leaders of a Seattle team that has a lot of new faces in 2020-21. Courtesy Seattle U Athletics.

So, who will step up? Well, Jim Hayford returns Riley Grigsby and Aaron Nettles. In an rather early media session, Hayford and Grigsby talked about the leadership of the veterans. 

“They’re just amazing young men,” Hayford said in reference to Grigsby and Nettles. “We gotta deal with COVID, these are the team rules, this is what I need to do in the classroom, this is what I need to do in the community. They’re just guys that are really committed to doing the right thing and doing things the right way.”

Hayford also said his two leaders live by the expectations and standards set for them when they came to Seattle. It’s a simple mindset of doing what you’re supposed to do, which Grigsby agreed with. And Grigsby understands what his role will be in 2020-21. 

“I feel like more a leader on the court,” Grigsby said. “Just make sure guys are in the right spots and going to the right places. Honestly I got to be more aggressive on the court. Pretty much do everything that Coach Hayford asked me to do.”

Re-Tool Over Replace

And on the women’s side, 1,000-point scorer Kamira Sanders is gone. Joana Alves, who was second on the team in scoring in 2019-20, has also moved on.

And Suzy Barcomb will rely on preseason All-WAC selection Courtney Murphy to lead the way in 2020-21. In another early morning media session, Barcomb had a lot to say on the topic considering she has been asked about replacing a star player multiple times at media days in the past. 

“I wouldn’t say I’d be the main person you rely on,” Murphy said. “I really think that the team this year, everyone has something to bring to the table. We have some really great players … which can really bring a lot to our game. We have a lot of playmakers and leaders who will step up. I’m looking forward to playing with them all and coming away with a lot of wins this season.”

For Barcomb, it’s not about replacing any one player. It’s about re-tooling and getting to work.

“You don’t replace,” Barcomb said. “I just think you re-tool your team and you change your team. So, Kamira had a very dynamic game in what she was able to do. She was one of our best defenders, with Olivia Crawford, as well. But, now, you ask Courtney to do a little bit more. You ask Georgie (Kehoe) to do a little bit more.”

“You can’t replace a Kamira with another Kamira because there isn’t another Kamira. But, you find the different pieces along the way and hope that combination of two or three people will do something better than what Kamira did.”

The Evan Cole Factor 

Second year-head coach Mark Madsen had a stellar offseason. Madsen filled up his roster with a mix of Division I and junior college transfers. And the biggest name on the list is Georgia Tech grad transfer Evan Cole. The 6’10 forward didn’t put up huge numbers in Atlanta. But in the third media session of the day, Madsen made clear what he sees in Cole.

Grad transfer Evan Cole is looking to have a big season when he takes the floor for Utah Valley in 2020-21. Courtesy UVU Athletics.

“Evan Cole is a multi-dimensional player,” Madsen said.

“He has an inside-out game. I think even his skillset, which we studied closely on tape from Georgia Tech, has exceeded our own expectations, which were already very high. He’s a game-changer when he gets on the court on both ends of the court. And, we’re really, really excited he’s here. He’s been one of the guys that has helped elevate the energy in practice every single day.”

That trust and belief is one of the big reasons why Cole is in Orem.

“I wanted to go play for a coach that really believed in my game,” Cole said. “And if there was one coach that believed in my game, it was coach Madsen. That went a long way for me. Coach Madsen was drafted in the first round and that’s my dream. So, he’s lived that dream and he tells me all his NBA stories and that’s exactly where I want to be. Having a coach with experiences like that is just amazing.”

Cole didn’t play much in three years at Georgia Tech. And the stats don’t stick out as the grad transfer averaged 4.4 points and 3.6 points per game in 27 appearances in a Yellow Jacket uniform. One thing Evan Cole did well in Atlanta is appear on ESPN Sportscenter’s Top-10 for a pair of dunks in ACC competition. Perhaps, in his only season in the WAC, Cole will add to that growing list. 

Can UVU Women Take the Next Step?

It seems strange that one school would have two head coaches in their second year in their respective programs. But, that is the case with Utah Valley women’s basketball head coach Dan Nielson who took over the job prior to the 2019-20 season.

And all Nielson did was create a different culture that resulted in the Wolverines’ highest finish in the WAC standings since joining the conference in 2013-14.

The Wolverines were chosen by the coaches to win the WAC regular season crown. With a grip of returners including All-WAC selections Maria Carvalho and Josie Williams, that accomplishment is quite possible. However, Nielson understands that preseason polls don’t really matter as Utah Valley was picked to finish fifth in 2019-20. And in the fourth media session of the day, Nielson explained his thoughts.

“It doesn’t really mean anything,” Nielson said. “Last year I think we were picked sixth in one and seventh in the other.

And we were able to finish tied for second. This year I think it speaks more to the parity in the league. We didn’t get the most first place votes. Cal Baptist did. So I just think it shows there’s a wide range of voting. A lot of people aren’t sure which could make for a fun league this year where I think it’s up for grabs.”

Nielson returns five players who averaged double digit minutes in 2019-20. Williams and Carvalho are the returning starters and Nehaa Sohail is technically a returning starter as she started 21 of 28 games last season. Add in transfers Rae Falatea (CSU Northridge), Shay Fano (Southern Utah), Leilani Otuafi (BYU), and Va’e Malufau (NAU) among others and this is a deep team with talent.

Nielson said in his initial press conference when hired that he wanted to change the culture. Winning the WAC in year two is a huge step in that direction.

Play and Compete

On Wednesday morning in the fifth media session of the day, the Tarleton State men’s basketball team made it clear what the philosophy is in 2020-21. The Texans want to play and compete regardless of the opponent.

“I feel like a lot of us are competitors,” Isaiah Range said. “We want to win and so going into these games coming in with the mindset to win … We’re not scared of competition, we’re not afraid of the big names. We’re just hoopers that want to play and compete.”

And it is very apparent in the non-conference schedule. Or at least three of the games early on. Tarleton State, in its first season at the Division I level, will travel to top-ranked Gonzaga, national power Kansas and SEC foe Texas A&M. And according to new head coach Billy Gillispie, there are more quality games than just those three. 

“Tarleton’s won 693 games in the last 32 years,” Gillispie said. “So, they’re used to winning and they’re used to playing the absolute best. We’re moving up to Division I and we’re fortunate to be able to play those teams. It will be an honor. We have the utmost respect for them. It’s a big challenge.”

Gillispie continued with regard to how his Texans will measure themselves.

“But we’re going to gauge ourselves agains the absolute best. The fans here deserve those kind of games as we grow our program through the transition period … we’ll respect everyone and fear no one … we have a lot of good teams that you didn’t mention on our schedule as we complete it … if you play too light in the non-conference, you’re not going to be ready to play in the WAC.”

Starting point guard Isaiah Range returns after starting all 30 games as a true freshman. Five players who have played for Gillispie at Ranger College join the roster including Shakur Daniel who was the North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. 

Keep Winning Ways Alive

The Tarleton State women’s basketball team has a desire to keep its winning momentum going. And in the final media session of the day, head coach Misty Wilson and seniors Kaitlyn Guillory and Lucy Benson took the time to discuss that momentum.

Isaiah Range started 30 games as a true freshman and will be a key piece of success as Tarleton State begins its first season at the Division I level. Courtesy Tarleton State Athletics.

For the past three seasons, the Tarleton State women’s team has won 20-plus games. The Texans are coming off a 21-8 season in their final tour through the Lone Star Conference. And the hope is that momentum will continue into the Division I era in 2020-21.

“I’m going to be completely honest, I really don’t know,” Wilson said in regard to keeping the momentum going. “I haven’t competed at this level yet. And I don’t want to be presumptuous in saying that I know it all and I know exactly what it takes … I know that the players are excited and they’re working very hard. I think we’ve played a great level of basketball in the Lone Star Conference. But every conference has something different … we’re going into this eyes wide open.”

Wilson will have the luxury of a trio of seniors in Guillory, Benson and Alexa Hoy to ring in the new era. All three players started 20-plus games for the Texans in 2019-20.  

Benson is a defensive presence as she tied for the team lead with 53 steals a season ago. She attributes her defensive success to her teammates. 

“I rely a great deal on my teammates and they leave me with enough confidence that I can go after those steals,” Benson said. “Or act on those plays because I know if there is a mistake or if mess up or anything that my teammates will be there to help me.”

There are a lot of questions surrounding the newest member of the WAC. But, tradition, consistency and experience are on the side of the Texans. 

About the author

Kyle McDonald

Love everything about WAC Hoops so decided I wanted to write more about it and cover this amazing conference that just keeps getting better. Follow us on Twitter @wachoopsdigest for information, game analysis and much more.

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