By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
When senior shooting guard Rodney Lee walked into United Supermarket earlier this fall, he was pleased with what he saw.
“I saw this big dude coming down the aisle, and I was like ‘oh, yes,'” Lee said. “It was a big relief.”
The “big dude” Lee speaks of is 6-foot, 9-inch junior center Matthias Krieg, one of nine newcomers to this year’s basketball team and one of the reasons this year’s players and coaches have their eyes set on a feasible conference championship.
“I’m excited about this team,” second-year head coach Klint Pleasant said. “I like our leadership and I like our depth. We’re much bigger and much more athletic than last season.”
The Wildcats are planning on reversing last season’s fortunes, when they finished 13-14 overall and 4-8 in the Lone Star Conference South Division, missing the postseason for the fourth straight year.
To do this, Pleasant and his coaching staff did some heavy-duty offseason recruiting to add to the deadly trio of Lee (18.7 points per game in 2002-03), senior point guard Cliff Green (9.6 ppg, 6.0 assists per game) and senior forward Tucker Pierson (14.5 ppg, 8.7 rebounds per game).
Three of ACU’s new acquisitions are Division I transfers: junior guard David Baxter, who comes from the University of Detroit; junior guard Adrian Scott from Southeastern Louisiana; and freshman guard Atiba Alexander from David Lipscomb University.
Baxter, who will likely start this season, averaged 25 points per game as a Detroit high school senior, earning first team all-state honors from the Detroit Free-Press.
“Baxter has gone up against some of the quickest players in the Midwest, and he can flat-out shoot the basketball,” Pleasant said.
“On paper, we’re close to where we want to be,” he said. “We went out and filled the holes we had with players we believe can make us competitive with the best teams in our league.”
Krieg gives the Cats a big, strong presence down low, something they haven’t had in years. The transfer from Southwest Missouri State-West Plains and Bietigheim, Germany native can bench-press 350 pounds and should be a defensive and rebounding threat as well as a post-up scorer- taking pressure off Lee, Green and Pierson to account for most of the team’s baskets.
“It’s nice to have a guy down there taking up space,” Lee said. “Defensively, he’s going to make guys think twice about coming inside for a shot.”
Additionally, junior transfer Charles Chinn (6-7, 180) and Mauro Matai (6-5, 225) should add plenty of size in the post.
“Last year everybody knew who was getting the ball,” Green said. “I was getting double-teamed, Rodney was getting double-teamed, Tuck was getting double-teamed. But the coaches did a good job recruiting new personnel, and we have lots of weapons.”
The team has so many top players that Pleasant said he won’t use one set starting lineup, and will instead mix things up game-to-game.
“We’re so deep, it could be someone different every night,” he said.
Keeping his team’s boosted athleticism in mind, Pleasant has decided to change things up and use a run-and-gun style of offense this year.
“We’re going to push the ball offensively any chance we get,” Pleasant said. “You could look for us to be a team to get a lot of easy baskets in transition.”
So far, the style has worked. In their first two exhibition game wins over Hardin-Simmons and the Akron Wingfoots, the Wildcats averaged over 100 points.
“Everbody’s a scorer-one through 14,” Alexander said. “If you look at those two games, everybody who came off the bench played at the same level as the guy they came in for. Everyone gave the same effort; there was no slip.”
And although the Wildcats will likely give up plenty of points, it won’t mean they’re not playing defense.
“We’re going to give up points because we’re a running team,” Pleasant said. “There will be a lot of possessions, so there will be a lot of points. Mainly, we want to hold teams to one shot per possession.”
ACU will also pressure the ball more defensively, Pleasant said.
“In the past, we wanted to try to hold opponents under a certain amount of points,” Lee said. “But Coach is trying to change that mentality. We want to put a lot of pressure on the ball, help each other out on defense and hold teams to under 40 percent shooting.”
The Wildcats were picked to tie for fifth in the seven-team Lone Star Conference South Division Pre-Season Poll, a ranking system Pleasant ignores.
“If anything, that’s a compliment to us,” he said. “No one owes us anything.”
Instead, the former Kent State assistant keeps his team’s focus on the LSC title.
“That’s the goal we’ve set,” Pleasant said. “We definitely have the potential to do that; it just depends on how hard we play consistently. All we can control is our hard work and our attitude, and so far those two things have been good.”
If ACU is to contend for a conference championship, it will be because of Pleasant’s recruiting resilience and his emphasis of the above two factors.
“I like Coach Pleasant because he doesn’t take any junk,” said Alexander, who transferred from Lipscomb because of problems he had with his former head coach. “If you’re not giving 100 percent, he doesn’t want you. Every practice is an intense practice.”
Following Tuesday’s exhibition game with the University of Toledo, ACU hopes that intensity continues into the regular season, which opens Saturday in Moody Coliseum against the University of Texas-Permian Basin at 4 p.m.
“We’re ready for this season to get started,” said Lee, who along with Green and Pierson co-captains the team. “Before every game me and Tuck say it’s the beginning of the end. This should be fun.”