Nov. 8, 2007
NACOGDOCHES, Texas -
As Danny Kaspar begins his eighth season in charge of the men's basketball program at Stephen F. Austin, he does so with nine newcomers on the roster. That number ties two previous years in Kaspar's tenure -- 2001-02, his second season on campus, and 2005-06 -- for the highest tally of fresh faces on the bench. On the surface, it would appear that Kaspar is heading into a season-long uphill battle against inexperience. But a closer look at this year's ledger of Lumberjacks reveals something that neither of the two aforementioned rosters -- or any other roster during Kaspar's tenure, for that matter -- had: an overabundance of quality experience returning.
For the first time in his SFA career, Kaspar's 2007-08 squad returns four of five starters from last year's team, as well as a fifth returnee who was often the first man off the bench last season and saw plenty of floor time.
"Other than the 02-03 season, I've never had this many players back with so much quality playing time," Kaspar said. "We return starters at center, small forward and power forward, and in the back-court. Their leadership has been excellent during the individual and conditioning workouts this fall, and it has given me a lot of reason to be optimistic for the upcoming season."
Kaspar's optimism is well-founded. The only time in the last seven years SFA has been close to returning this many starters was 2002-03, when the 'Jacks brought back three. That year, SFA won 23 games, missed a Southland Conference Championship by a single victory and came within an overtime 3-pointer of winning the SLC Tournament title and reaching the NCAA Championships.
This year's returning starters -- center Matt Kingsley, power forward Scott Weaver, small forward Josh Alexander and guard Gerald Fonzie -- along with Kyle Jacobs, who can play either forward position, accounted for 54 percent of SFA's offensive production in 2006-07 and took care of 53 percent of the rebounding effort a year ago. But it's not just their in-game ability that has Kaspar excited about this season's prospects.
Weaver and Kingsley are each beginning their fourth year in the SFA program -- Weaver as a senior and Kingsley as a redshirt junior -- while Fonzie, who transferred in as a sophomore, and Alexander have each lettered twice at SFA. This marks the first time Kaspar has ever started a season at SFA with so many players who have each logged at least two years in his system.
"Not only do we have players returning from last year," he said, "we have three returnees who started here as freshmen and a fourth who is entering his third year in the program. All these players are very in tune with what I'm trying to accomplish. I believe all our returnees have bought into the program."
The veterans are already peddling what they've purchased to the younger 'Jacks, and Kaspar likes what he sees in the sales report, so far.
"Our running drills are pretty tough, especially at the beginning of the season when we're trying to get everyone in shape," Kaspar said. "But all these returning guys, they know that they just have to push through. They tell the other players, `Look, you've just got to do it.' They're leading by example, with encouraging words. I'm getting a lot of help coaching these new guys from our returning players, and that help is very welcome.
"Internal leadership is something that has been lacking here in the last three years, and I am optimistic this year will be different, in a positive sense."
Following is a closer look at the strengths of the 2007-08 Lumberjack basketball team:
With all three front line starters and one of the team's top reserves from a year ago returning, SFA looks extremely solid up front. Alexander and Kingsley, who paced the team in both scoring and rebounding last season, lead the way.
Alexander, a former SLC Freshman of the Year, was named to the Third-Team All-SLC list last season after averaging 13.0 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game. He led the squad with 20 double-figure scoring performances, including a career-high 31-point showing in a win over Northern Illinois. He was a second-team selection on the preseason all-conference squads this year.
"Josh is, in my opinion, the best small forward in the league," Kaspar said. "He's an excellent shooter, scorer and rebounder."
Kingsley had a breakout season last year, scoring 12.6 points per outing and pulling down 4.7 boards per contest. He was named Honorable Mention All-SLC for his efforts. Kingsley boasts one of the best shooting touches among Southland big men, an attribute he put on display during a three-game stretch last season when he didn't miss a single free throw.
"Matt came a long way last year and has continued to improve," Kaspar said. "I believe we will be able to look to him consistently this year for double-digit scoring output."
Fans won't find Weaver among the scoring leaders in the season box score, but the 6-8 power forward finds plenty of other ways to lead his team. Due to his consistent play as a defender and opportunistic rebounder, Weaver earned starting duty in all but one game last season. The only start he didn't make was the Lumberjacks' SLC Tournament game against Northwestern State, when he volunteered to sit in favor of Jacobs, a more athletic player who Weaver thought would provide a better match-up against the Demons.
"Scott is a blue-collar player who will give you everything he's got," Kaspar said. "He's an excellent shooter. Scott is going to be a big help to us on the court this year, both as a player and as a leader."
Jacobs is a senior in his second season at SFA after transferring from Lincoln College. The 6-6 Monroe, La., native sees most of his playing time at power forward but is athletic and versatile enough to play small forward. He showed flashes of the potential his explosive play can create last season, the best example being SFA's overtime win at SLC foe Lamar, when he registered career-highs in points (14) and rebounds (8).
"I really look for Kyle to be a defensive stopper for us," Kaspar said. "That will give us that added dimension that was missing on defense last year."
The core group of returning veterans will be backed up by a talented quartet of newcomers. The list includes collegiate transfers Benson Akpan and Nick Shaw, as well as prep recruits Dean Pele and Jereal Scott.
Akpan is a 6-9, 240-pound center from Howard College. He led the Western Junior College Athletic Conference in blocked shots last season and was named to the All-WJCAC First Team. Kaspar calls Akpan "a great defender and the best shot-blocker I've ever had at SFA."
He is joined down on the block by freshman Scott. The 6-7 La Porte, Texas, product was a two-time all-district selection and earned his team's offensive MVP award as a senior.
"Jereal is a nice-sized big man with good offensive skills around the basket," Kaspar said.
Shaw, a junior transfer from Collin County Community College, can play either forward spot. He earned All-North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference honors as a sophomore last season.
"Nick is a great competitor who has a well-rounded game," Kaspar said. "He shoots and passes the ball well, he is a very good rebounder, and he has some leadership skills that I believe will help our team this year."
Pele is a 6-3 forward from Lake Travis High in Austin, where he was a three-time district MVP selection.
"Dean will play the small forward for us, where his shooting skills will complement Josh Alexander," Kaspar said. "I'd like to think our front line play is going to be both experienced and talented this year."
As sound as the SFA frontcourt appears, the men up front won't be much use without someone to feed them the ball. That's where Fonzie and a group of five newcomers come in.
Fonzie can rival Alexander as one of the best long-range shooters on the floor, as evidenced by his 42-percent shooting from behind the 3-point arc last season. Alexander was the only Lumberjack to shoot the three with more accuracy, hitting 44 percent of his treys. But Fonzie's production on offense was limited as a point guard last year, as he spent most of his energy working to get shots for his teammates. This season, in an effort to put Fonzie's long-range ability to better use, Kaspar will move him to the wing, where he will be able to catch and shoot, instead of looking to distribute the ball first.
"Gerald's an excellent shooter, and I sincerely believe we can increase his contribution as a scorer if we get him off the ball," Kaspar said.
Keeping Fonzie off the ball will require excellent play by the two newcomers SFA brought in to play the point this season. Sophomore transfer Eric Bell and true freshman Preston Davis will share the chore.
At 5-6, Bell is the smallest player on the squad, but the McClennan Community College transfer is lightning-quick and a tenacious defender. He was named NTJCAC Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman last season.
"Eric is a serious candidate to start at the point guard spot," Kaspar said. "He's the quickest player we've had in my eight years here. He's a great penetrator, passer and ball-handler, and his on-the-ball defense is phenomenal. He also has some great leadership skills that I hope will help us immediately."
Davis, a 6-2 Arlington, Texas, native, was a two-time member of the first-team all-district squad for Summit High School. As a senior, he was nominated for the McDonald's All-American team.
"Preston Davis is a point guard who brings excellent quickness and ball-handling to our team," Kaspar said.
Eddie Williams gives Kaspar a third option at the point as he can play either guard position. The 6-3 Lawton, Okla., product actually played all five positions at one point or another during his high school career and was named one of the Top 5 Players in Oklahoma as a senior.
"Eddie has looked very good in preseason practices," Kaspar said. "He's aggressive, and plays very hard with a lot of confidence."
Williams will vie with Fonzie for playing time at the shooting guard spot, along with junior transfer Jason Rogers, redshirt junior Cameron James and freshman Austin Falke.
Rogers is a 6-4 Dallas product who spent the last two seasons at Frank Phillips College. He was a First-Team All-WJCAC selection as a sophomore, when he led his team to a share of the conference championship. Rogers shot 40 percent from the field in his two-year junior college career.
"Jason is an excellent shooter who will compete for the starting two-guard spot," Kaspar said.
James utilized a redshirt season last year as he worked to become eligible. The Kingwood, Texas, native walked on at Texas A&M as a freshman before transferring to SFA last year. Kaspar said James "should see some playing time at the off-guard spot."
Falke is a walk-on from Thorndale, Texas, where he was an all-around success and proven winner. He led his team to Class A state championships in both basketball and baseball. He was the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches Class A Player of the Year as a senior.
"Though Austin is a walk-on, he has performed very well so far and has earned the respect of our other players," Kaspar said.
The Lumberjacks will open the regular season Friday night with a home game against the University of Texas at Tyler. The contest is set for a 7 p.m. start at the William R. Johnson Coliseum.
-- SFA --