MARTIN, Tenn. – Early in the summer, University of Tennessee at Martin head men’s coach Jason James took a look at his 2013-14 roster and envisioned a new brand of basketball. With 11 returners who accounted for 86 percent of the team’s scoring from a year ago, he decided to loosen the reigns and let his players adapt to a new playing style.
“We are changing our style to play at a much faster pace,” said James, who enters his fifth season at the helm of the Skyhawk program. “That means more pressing on the defensive end. We have a group now of good team defenders who can help each other to get a stop when we need to get over the hump. Offensively, we are at our best when we are getting up and down the floor in transition and creating easy baskets. With our team being so athletic, I think this new style will benefit us greatly instead of us walking the ball up the floor.”
Of course, to get up-and-down the floor and wreak havoc on the defensive end, the necessary personnel is required. James believes this year’s version of the Skyhawks will benefit greatly from its stacked depth, especially at the guard slots.
“This group is up there with the most talented backcourts I have had since I’ve been here,” James said. “From a talent standpoint, it’s close. We have had the most production from that position the last few years and they are our most experienced bunch.”
The aforementioned backcourt includes six upperclassmen who combined to log 77 starts last season. Those upperclassmen returners include Mike Liabo (the program’s seventh all-time leading scorer with 1,229 points), Terence Smith (13.8 points per game over the final 12 games of 2012-13), Justin Childs (10 double-figure scoring games last season), Bobby Jones (at least two 3-pointers made in seven games in 2012-13), Omari Minor (49 career starts at point guard) and Khristian Taylor (six starts at point guard last season).
Sophomore Dee Oldham is also included in the group of backcourt returners following a steady freshman season. Oldham seems poised for a breakout season and has been one of the team’s most pleasant offseason surprises, according to James. DeMarc Richardson also returns after making 13 starts and often defending the opposition’s best guard as a freshman.
James also added another valuable backcourt presence with the signing of Marshun Newell in the summer. A 6-3, 195-pound combo guard out of Southwest Tennessee Community College, Newell has also been one of the team’s most impressive players in the preseason after he was named the No. 80 junior college player in the nation by JUCORecruiting.com.
“Marshun will play some point and we expect him to help us out in that area,” James said. “He can play both guard spots and will help out on the ball, handling it and making plays for his teammates. He can also move off the ball and score some for us – he has the talent to challenge for OVC Newcomer of the Year honors.”
The backcourt will be highlighted by program stalwarts Liabo and Smith, who both entered the program together in 2010.
A 6-6, 195-pound senior, Liabo ranks as one of the most prolific scorers in the Ohio Valley Conference in his tenure. Despite battling injuries for the majority of the past two seasons, he has cracked double-figures in the scoring column in 71 of his 93 career games, including 13 games of 20-plus points.
“Mike will go down as one of the program’s most accomplished players from this era,” James said. “He got his hip healthier and he lost some weight to get his body right.”
Smith has also been hampered by injuries over the past two seasons but enters 2013-14 at full strength. The 6-4, 195-pound redshirt junior has shown the ability to take over games in his brief Skyhawk career and has registered at least 15 points in 13 games in less than two full seasons.
“We are moving Terence off the ball but late in games we want the ball in his hands because he can do so much with it,” James said. “This is the first time in a while that he can consistently lift weights and get in the gym. It’s exciting that he has finally been able to take the smaller steps to get ready for games. You get reminded of how good he can be on a daily basis.”
With all the buzz about the Skyhawks’ guard play, the biggest question since last March has been the health of junior forward Myles Taylor, who tore his ACL on the final day of the 2012-13 regular season and was forced to miss the OVC Tournament. Despite the uncertainty of his condition, the league’s head coaches and sports information directors voted Taylor on the 2013-14 Preseason All-OVC squad after he has racked up 13 games of 20-plus points to go along with 10 career double-doubles.
“Myles hasn’t been cleared yet and we are not sure of his return date,” James said. “With Myles on the floor, our team will be totally different – he adds a whole new dimension with his ability to score and rebound. That’s an adjustment that we will have to make. We just need to keep Myles’ mind right – mentally and physically – for that day when he is cleared, whenever that may come.”
With the absence of Taylor, the Skyhawks will rely heavily on a pair of returners and a pair of newcomers to head their post play. Junior Tobias Dowdell, senior Pierre Mopo and incoming freshmen Javier Martinez and Chandler Rowe all stand at 6-7 and will vie each other for playing time.
“Our post position will be by committee while Myles is out,” James said. “We need Javier to step up – he has a big, strong body and he is ready to play right now. Tobias will also fill some of that void because he is very active. Chandler is young but he is learning – we will need to get him some minutes early so he can get experience. Pierre needs to get his body in shape but we expect to see him out there too.”
Once a fully healthy roster took to form, UT Martin showed signs of its potential late last season. In the span of a month, the Skyhawks knocked off OVC heavyweights Eastern Kentucky (who would win 25 games on its way to a postseason berth) at home and would win at OVC West champion Murray State (21 wins) for the first time in program history.
The schedule is just as tough in 2013-14, as UT Martin will travel approximately 13,000 miles to complete its 31 games this season. The Skyhawks will play in 11 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wyoming), with the longest trip slated for a game at UNLV on Nov. 30.
However, with so many familiar names dotting the 2013-14 roster, expectations are running high for the Skyhawks. Sporting News magazine selected UT Martin to finish second in the OVC West race in its preseason rankings.
“If we play the way we want to play and play consistently, we have a chance to beat anybody,” James said. “We are experienced and have good guard play and those are two things that can help you win games. We just need to be consistent – we have struggled with that in the past but our guys have been working on that and are focused. We are ready to roll.”