With the official close of the fall sports season at ETBU last weekend, it's been very easy to overlook the looming fact that... basketball season is, literally, hurtling at us from around the corner.
Both the Lady Tigers and Tigers tip off their respective hoops seasons the weekend of Nov. 16, which means as of this writing the Tigers' opener on Nov. 16 against Belhaven College in The House of Blues, Ornelas Gym, is exactly 11 days away. The Lady Tigers will tip off the following night against Wiley College, hosting the Lady Wildcats in the tipoff of a doubleheader that will conclude with a Tigers vs. Wiley matchup immediately following the ladies game.
It is going to be an interesting year for both ETBU teams. It's also a pivotal year for both; the Lady Tigers are in their first season under new coach Jay Bowen, and the Tigers are coming off just a seven-win season a year ago. But the excitement is bubbling under the surface in both programs.
The key element running through both teams entering the season is newness. The Lady Tigers have just one returning starter from last season's ASC East championship team, senior guard Sade' Stewart. "Slim," of course, is a good place to start -- she was named the ASC East Preseason Player of the Year last month by the coaches, SIDs and media folks, and she has an outside shot at becoming ETBU's all-time leading scorer with a great year as a senior.
But by and large, Coach Bowen's first Lady Tiger team is going to be vastly different from the one that lost in the closing seconds to McMurry in last season's conference tournament semifinals under former coach Lisa Curliss-Taylor. But Jay and his staff have brought in a nice core of solid recruits in their first season, despite the relatively late start in the recruiting process this last summer. Topping the list are a pair of JUCO transfers, point guard Armeka Brooks and post Dana Alexander, as well as a tough, hard-nosed freshman in wing Julie Bowman.
ETBU coaches are very optimistic that these additions, along with Stewart's return as well as another year of growth from veterans such as sophomore Nieishia Brown and juniors Michelle Young and Meaghan Woodell, will allow the Lady Tigers to again compete for the ASC East championship. The one glaring weakness entering the season is a lack of depth, something that was not a problem during last season's undefeated run through the East.
But strengths? You can bet that Coach Bowen's team will be disciplined, they will play smart basketball, and they will be exciting to watch because of the style of play. There is always some degree of change and uncertainty whenever a new coach comes along, at any level. And there will almost certainly be a period of growth this season. But the Lady Tigers should once again be a very competitive challenger for the ASC East title this season.
And don't forget this nugget -- the winner of the East gets to host this year's conference tournament in late February, so there's even more gold in the pot at the end of the rainbow this season.
Now to the men. I personally got my first look at the Tigers last night when ETBU made the two-hour trip south to Natchitoches, La., to face a very, very good Northwestern State team in an exhibition game. There were a lot of reasons I like this trip personally -- number one, Northwestern State is my alma mater and I really like watching the Demons whenever I get a chance. Number two, though, there is a bubbling excitement being generated around campus about this year's Tiger team, which resembles nothing like the squad that limped to a 7-18 finish last season.
First off, don't let the final score of 94-57 fool you. The Demons are three-time champions in the Southland Conference and, of course, pulled off that great upset of Iowa in the first round of the NCAA Tournament a couple of years ago. This year's NSU team is tall, long and quick, and the Demons pretty much controlled the Tigers over the final 30 minutes or so of last night's exhibition.
But they've also been practicing for about two months, whereas the Tigers entered the game with less than two weeks of workouts under their belts. And that's a big key, seeing as ETBU coach Bert West is sending out perhaps the youngest, most inexperienced team he's ever had in 14 years with the Tigers.
But you'll mostly see West with a smile on his face these days, because the Tigers really, really have a nice group of young freshmen -- perhaps the deepest, most talented group of freshmen to come through ETBU since West led the Tigers to NAIA prominence back in the early- and mid-1990s. There are no superstars in this group, but there are definitely some guys who can do several things awfully, awfully well -- the proof will come when, as ETBU football coach Mark Sartain liked to say about his young team back in August, "when the live bullets start flying."
ETBU will be bigger, faster, quicker and deeper this season. Junior transfer La'France Cooper was the JUCO Player of the Year at Southern-Shreveport a couple of years ago, and he led the way with 13 points against Northwestern Monday night. Senior transfer point guard Nick Garrett, all 5-foot, 8-inches of him, has the potential to be a multi-purpose threat running the offense for ETBU.
Then come the freshmen. Post Josh Chambers, out of Mexia, stands 6-7 and has already become a dangerous shot-blocker -- an element the Tigers really haven't had out of a true post player this decade. Chambers had an outstanding night Monday against the Demons, with 10 points and at least four blocked shots in the second half against D-I competition. He will only get better as the season goes along.
Post Cody Waneck, of The Woodlands, also had a very impressive night against NSU, scoring eight points and displaying some really nifty offensive moves in the paint. West really, really likes the play of guard Tyler McKinney, a tough, hard-nosed, physical defender. Forward Deba Egharevba also is a very good, athletic player who great and explosive leaping ability who pulled down a team-high eight rebounds against Northwestern.
There are others, of course -- nearly 20 are listed on the roster, and only four of those -- seniors Bryan Whitmire and Carlos Marbot, junior Josh Hickman and sophomore Tyrell Brown -- played last season. Hickman, the starting tight end on this year's football team, is expected to join the team for practice Tuesday and should be ready to go by the season opener on the 16th. He will be a huge, experienced addition with scoring punch to a team already buzzing with excitement and athleticism.
So the countdown is on. This season promises to be another exciting one for ETBU basketball, and it's just around the corner.