Crusader fans sitting in Hayes Gymnasium this year will most likely raise an eyebrow or two once they’ve had a good look at the 2009-2010 North Greenville University men’s basketball edition.
With a strong inside game anchored by veterans Paul Harrison and Kyler Vitko, a supporting cast of other solid returnees, combined with a paddock full of racehorse freshmen, the Crusaders will be looking to put some awe-struck smiles on the faces of the faithful.
Coach Chad Lister, who opens his eighth year at the helm of the Crusaders, acknowledged the youth movement is alive and well in Tigerville. “We’ve got a lot of young guys on this team, but that’s not a bad thing,” he said. “We started one senior, three sophomores and a freshman in our first two exhibition games this year, and I believe that type of experience will pay off down the road toward the end of the season. The freshmen have been very attentive to learning a lot of new things. They’ve had to learn about the conditioning necessary for the length of the college season, and to make the transition from high school to college. They must learn how to play hard on every possession, but they’ve got to find out in a hurry against some pretty good opposition.”
“Our coaches (Rob Warren and Brandon Rosser) have done a great job recruiting a good group of young men,” Lister added. “On paper, with such a young team you’d think we wouldn’t be all that deep, but in reality, our depth will be greatly improved this season. The majority of our team may be young, but if they continue to improve at the pace they have since we got back this semester, we might be able to go nine or 10 players deep this season. That’d be a big plus for us. We might even be able to insert a few lineups where we can pick up our opponents and put some pressure on them full court. In the past, we couldn’t do that because we didn’t have the numbers. We’re much more athletic
and you’ll see a big difference in the Crusaders this season.”
Lister the teacher has returned to the court this season; whistle in hand, because his youngsters have to learn everything they already know all over – from a college perspective. “We have to teach these young guys each drill from scratch, and point out things that you expect your veterans to know. They are learning new things; new catch phrases and buzz words we use in practice to describe the way we want it done. The new guys played a lot of minutes during the exhibition season, and they’re a good bunch of kids that will add a lot to our program.”
The Crusaders, 11-17 a year ago, will build a lot of their offensive scheme around sophomore Paul Harrison (6-8 260 C Alpharetta, Ga.) Harrison was among the top five scoring freshmen in the country last year at 16.0 ppg, and he also added a whopping 9.3 rebounds. The quick, agile big man had seven double doubles last season and shot 57.3% from the field. “The key for Paul is to not be satisfied with a good breakout freshman year,” Lister said. “We have some guys around him now who can play and if we can get our perimeter game to open up a little bit, and knock down shots, it will give him more space to operate from the post. He’s going to see a lot of double teams, so if we don’t make shots he could be in for some long nights. However, he’s prepared. He saw some double teams against Division I UNC-Wilmington, and that’s a sign of respect. He can make good hard post moves, and he’s hard to stop.”
Kyler Vitko (SR F 6-6 215 Alpharetta, Ga.) has gotten bigger and stronger in the off-season and is ready for a big season as well. Vitko, the team’s only senior, averaged a credible 15.7 ppg and 6.6 rebounds, but more impressively, he shot a scorching 59.7% from the field. “Kyler has grown stronger, and when his A game is there, he’s tough to handle,” Lister noted. “He is continuing to work on his consistency, and his shot 10 feet in is very good right now. We hope to convert him into the prototypical ‘4’ player. He will be a major counterpart of Paul down on the post and he should be able to take advantage of the double teams Paul will see. That should present a lot of scoring opportunities for him.”
Other top veterans Lister says are absolutely essential for the winning to return to NGU include Tyler Mains (JR G 6-1 180 Butler, KY 6.2 ppg/73 asst), Jonathan Bozymowski (SO F 6-6 190 Piedmont, SC 5.8/3.7), Kyler Booher (JR F 6-2 185 Covington, OH 4.9/2.5), Zack Shields (SO G 6-3 175 Mount Eden, KY 2.9/1.8), Jason Wray (SO G 6-2 160 Fayetteville, NC 3.9 ppg/48 asst), and Jeremy Eidson (SO C 6-9 245 Greenwood, SC.
“Tyler Mains has been hurt early this year, but he has a lot of experience at the point guard and played a lot of minutes last year,” Lister said. “What will help him is the competition at the point position to push him. He was thrown to the wolves as a freshman and didn’t see a lot of competition in practice. He has that now. Playing 29 games for over 30 minutes per game wore him down. Teams would pick us up full court, and he’d wear down. That won’t happen with more depth. Jonathan Bozymowski will play the ‘3’ spot this year, but he can also play the post some,” Lister said. “He’s gotten bigger in the off- season in the weight room. Jonathan is a heady guy, and he can do a lot of things. We also played him at the point before out of necessity. Kyler Booher is a very intelligent player. He has a 4.0 gpa and he has played very well in the pre-season. He’s really surprised us with his shooting. He was a very undersized post in high school, so he’s used to mixing it up and finishing down low. He is a wild card who could be a big spark for us. He brings it to the court every night. Zack Shields is a heady player who knows the game. He may not be the fastest guy on our roster, but he makes up for it with some tough, gritty play. He’s really more consistent and he will surprise a lot of teams with his shooting. Jason Wray is a super intelligent kid. He’s a pre med student, and that’s why they’re here at NGU. Once the semester is over and he can really focus on basketball, he will really, really help us. He’s been working on his shot, and he is the epitome of the student athlete. Jeremy Eidson is still working on his post moves, and he is improving every day. At 6-9, we’d like him to play more, but he knows what he can and can’t do on the court. He’s got a great attitude and at some point, he’ll be a big contributor.”
Now that the experienced thoroughbreds are out of the paddock, Lister’s young yearlings will press them as the team hits the starting gate. Lister’s biggest surprise of the early part of the year has been Millan Rodrigo (FR G 6-1 175 Marietta, Ga.). “Millan Rodrigo has shown some super intelligence on the floor early in the pre-season,” Lister added. “He’s got a great basketball mind, and is extremely quick. We didn’t bring him in to play the point, but we told him his best chance to play a lot of minutes right away was at point, and he was all for it. We put him in a difficult spot, and he responded very well. He started our first two exhibition games, and he handles it well and can shoot it when he needs to. He’s a true diamond in the rough.”
Tim Franklin (FR G 5-10 175 Piedmont, SC) has gone head to head with Rodrigo for the point guard position and Lister has enjoyed the battling. “Tim Franklin has put on a great show to earn the point guard spot,” Lister explained. “He will see a lot of minutes and he’s a very quick and unselfish point guard.
Other freshman in the Crusaders’ stable who will add to the critical depth that may get NGU deep into the post-season include Luke Lattimer (FR-RS F 6-4 190 South Bend, IN) Jamaal Pryor (FR F 6-4 185 Powder Springs, Ga.), Jimmy Ellis (FR 5-10 165 FR Aiken, SC), Rory Fields (FR F 6-4 170 August,
Ga. ), Casey Belli (FR G 6-2 175 Acworth, Ga.), and Matt Hunter (FR G 6-0 165 Pontiac, IL). Luke didn’t play last year due to injury, and he has a minimum of three years to play for us. He has played very well early and is a good shooter and very smart. He will log a ton of minutes this season. Jamaal is a surprise and we think he will develop into a good post player in the future. He was a high school teammate with Rodrigo, and as he gets stronger, he will be the heir to the ‘4’ spot. He rebounds very well, is a good passer and is working hard on his shot. Jimmy is very athletic and as a shooter, can fill it up. When he improves on the defensive end, he will play a lot. Rory Fields can literally jump out of the gym, and he’s very athletic. Once his shot gets better and he gets some experience, he will be very good for us.
Casey is a freshman out of Atlanta who can shoot it real well. He’s been hurt all of the pre-season and if he can come off the surgery, he may get to play this season. He’s a very good outside threat. Matt is a freshman from Illinois who has had a tremendous work ethic in early practices. We’d like our entire team to be like Matt. He works awful hard to give everything he’s got every day. He’s not satisfied with just being on team; he wants to get minutes.”
“We are excited about this season as we’ve been in quite a few seasons,” Lister exclaimed. “Our team morale is very high, and the guys sense in the locker room and on the floor that we have some talent and can do something special this year. They know it’s good to have a winning season, but a 20 win year would be something exceptional at North Greenville. It’s been awhile since it’s been done, and these guys plan to take a shot at it. It would not shock me a bit if this young team overachieves and accomplishes that.”
North Greenville’s schedule includes a strong mixture of regional Division II opponents, but also a trip to Division I state rival Charleston Southern is on the slate late in the year. “We’ve got an excellent schedule this year,” Lister pointed out. “Brevard College will be real good with everybody back, and Erskine was in the Conference Carolinas championship game last year and we split with them. Lees-McRae is also on there along with Hiawassee, a new four year institution which was a junior college like we were. Florida Tech is a very good team out of the Sunshine State Conference, and they’ll be very good. The schedule is filled with a good mix of styles and there are some teams we should beat, and some others we’ll have to play our best to win. It should be an exciting year.”
Lister summarized his team’s racing plan by stating, “We will continue to prepare every year like we will move to a conference affiliation. We want to be tested and ready when that day comes. Our biggest goal is go get into the NCCAA South Regional and hopefully advance to the national tournament. The NCCAA has been great for us to have the opportunity for post-season play. We’ve got to do a better job positioning ourselves in the seeding. We can have a great team, but if we end up as the #4 seed and have to play #1 in the first round, it can shorten your season very quickly.”
With big favorites Harrison and Vitko up front, and veterans like Mains, Bozymowski, Booher, Shields, Wray and Eidson rounding out the veteran field, Lister and the Crusaders will bank on the youthful exuberance of the freshmen to see if NGU will cross the national finish line in March. Lister’s ready to drop the flag and turn them loose.