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CEDAR CITY -- Despite losing several key contributors from last season, the T-Bird men's basketball team will tip-off the season with two exhibition games this week at the Centrum Arena, in hopes building on the successes of last season.
SUU will play host to Mesa State on Tuesday and Adams State on Friday in pre-season games to prepare for the regular season, which starts Nov. 13 against Hawaii. SUU basketball coach Roger Reid said he believes although this year's team is younger, they will be a fun team to watch.
"We have good, young, talented team, we'll be very patient with them, but I think as we progress, we'll have a fun team," he said. "I think our fans will enjoy watching this basketball team play."
The T-Birds were picked to finish seventh in the conference last season, but surprised many as they threatened to finish in the top four seeds; the team finally nested in the fifth spot. SUU then upset IUPUI 53-48 in opening round of The Summit League Championships before being knocked off by the eventual conference champion North Dakota State.
This season, the T-Birds were once again picked to finish seventh in the conference, but primarily because of the youth of the team. That youth was showcased during SUU's annual "Varsity Preview" Tuesday, which split the team in half and pinned them against each other to give fans a glimpse of what the 2009-2010 season may feature. Reid said the team this year, because they are younger, may not find success right away, but he said he is encouraged with the progress.
"We got a long ways to go be a good team or the team we want to be," Reid said. "But, for a young team, our first night out and after only six practices, I'm very encouraged with the work ethic of our guys."
During the game, the white squad defeated the black team 75-60, but the importance of the game was the emergence of freshmen centers Matt Hodgson and Dallin Bachynski and sophomore forward Matt Massey, who replaced John Clifford, Jaren Jeffery and Tyler Quinney for this season. Both Clifford and Quinney graduated, while Jeffery, who saw considerable time as a walk-on freshman last season, left to serve a mission in Brazil for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
During the game, Hodgson led all players with 24 points and Bachynski added with 19 more; Massey scored 15 points and grabbed a game-high seven rebounds. Bachynski also contributed with five rebounds, four assists and four steals, while Hodgson led all players with four blocks.
Hodgson said he was nervous when the game began, but was able to adjust quickly. "For the first five minutes, I was really nervous," Hodgson said. "I made a couple of stupid turnovers, but managed to work according to the game and I enjoyed playing with the fellows and it was a great game, I loved it."
Hodgson said the biggest struggle would be the adjustment from Australia rules to American rules, which includes different styles of coaching a narrower lane to work with on the court.
"Coming from Australia, I have to get used to the American style of coaching," he said. "Getting used to the smaller key-way, just small adjustments to compare international basketball to American basketball." Reid said although Hodgson and Bachynski are young, they are skilled.
"They haven't played a lot of basketball, but they're skilled," he said. "They have nice touches and you don't get big guys that have that kind of touch." Reid said the duo ranks up near the top of all the centers he has coached in terms of potential, but if they aren't willing to work to get better that means nothing. "I've coached a lot of big guys over the years and (Hodgson and Bachynski) have a lot of nice potential," he said. "But, potential means nothing if they don't work to get better. Potential is the most overrated thing in the world."
Both Hodgson and Bachynski will play an important role during this season because they will fill in the vacancy left with Clifford and Quinney's departure. Clifford led the T-Birds last season with 8.2 rebounds per game, which also happened to lead all players in The Summit League; Clifford led all players in both offensive and defensive rebounding categories. Clifford also broke the school record for field goal percentage, shooting a blistering 62 percent from the floor during the season.
Quinney finished the season as SUU's second highest scorer and rebounder with 13.8 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per contest.
However, SUU has more problems than just the new "big men" in the paint and that is the young point guards that will be running the T-Bird offensive attack this season. SUU is without Dave Marek, Cory Davis and Mike Josserand this season; the trio combined to run the top guard spot last season.
Marek graduated, while both Davis, who was a junior, and Josserand, a sophomore last season, left the team. This season, the favorite to run the point guard position appears to be freshman Damon Heuir, a 6-foot-2 guard from Townsville, Queensland, Australia. Heuir averaged 28 points per game, 11 rebounds and 12 assists at Ignatius Park College last season in his way to leading his team to the Catholic School Championship in Queensland and shows explosive speed and excellent shooting ability. During the scrimmage on Tuesday, Heuir made several athletic plays and showed a potential to be much like NDSU guard Ben Woodside, who led The Summit League with nearly 23 points a game last to the conference player of the year award as a senior.
However, with Woodside absent this season, one advantage will be the return of senior guard Davis Baker; Baker led all scorers last season with an average of 17.4 points per game as a junior and is the top returning scorer from The Summit League last season.
Baker also scored 15 points in the scrimmage game and heads into this season as a pre-season first team all-conference selection.
The T-Birds will also have sophomore guard Jake Nielson back this season.
Nielson averaged 5.8 points and 2.8 rebounds per game last season as a freshman, but finished the season as a regular starter.
Nielson had his best game of his collegiate career in a 85-80 overtime win on Jan. 17 against South Dakota State last season.
In that game, Nielson scored 21 points, but most importantly nailed a 35-foot 3-point shot as time expired to force an overtime period. Both Baker and Nielson are the only returning starters from last season.
Senior guard Drew Allen and senior forward Byron Byrd are the only other returning players from last season; both saw some playing time during last year's campaign and Allen made a couple of starts.
Tip-off for the first exhibition game, which is against Mesa State is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Centrum Arena.
"We have a great group of young men that love to play basketball, that are doing what they're asked to do of the floor and its fun to coach basketball with those kind of people." Reid said.