The men’s basketball program looks to take the next step entering its third season as members of the Southland Conference. The Wildcats have moved in the right direction, recording two conference wins in their first season, then four wins last year, but look to become a cornerstone program in the Southland.
“We’re ready to get going, we’re ready to play against someone other than ourselves and it’s always nice to get things rolling on your court,” head coach Joe Golding said.
Golding, entering his fifth season at the helm, brings in a group that has three key dynamics.
The Wildcats have four seniors that will look to lead ACU. Parker Wentz and Austin Cooke are the pillars of the team and are the only members with over two years of experience at the Div. I level. Jalen Little will look to run things at the point for ACU, while big man Duran Porter will man the inside for the Wildcats, after both transferred to ACU a year ago.
“They (the seniors) have been really, really good, not just on the court, but off as well,” Golding said. “All four of them are men of high character and a great example for the young kids in our program. There’s a hug benefit in playing over 60 Div. I games.”
Next, there are the new guys. ACU brings in six true freshman and one junior transfer for their 2015-2016 squad. This marks the largest freshman class for ACU since the move to Div. I in 2013.
“One thing we’ve really wanted to do over the past few years is to change the culture of men’s basketball at Abilene Christian,” Golding said. “We want to bring guys here that match the culture of ACU, can succeed here and are great basketball players. I think we’ve done that with this freshmen class and with Jovan.”
Most of the freshman have experienced success at the high school level in either championships or personal accolades. They also give the Wildcats something they have needed desperately over the past two years: size and depth.
“They’re all winners, Jalen Franklin won a state championship at Little Rock, was one of the top players in Arkansas. Hayden Howell got beat in the state championship and was player of the year in Oklahoma,” Golding said. “Hayden Farquhar won four or five state championships in several sports at Throckmorton. Jaren Lewis won a state title his junior year in Florida. All these guys know how to win.”
Last season, ACU had six players register at either 6-foot or lower, and only had four players come in at either 6-foot5 or taller. This season, two out of eight total guards are under 6-foot, while all five forwards are over 6-foot-5.
At the forward spots, Lewis (6-foot-6), Farquhar (6-foot-7) and Howell (6-foot-7) give the Wildcats the same size that much of the conference has. Franklin (6-foot-2) and B.J. Maxwell (6-foot-4) give ACU a young backcourt that can compete with the big, quick guards of the Southland.
“We don’t want to put too much on their plate too earlier, but it’s hard to consider them freshmen after the Costa Rica trip and seeing them play against professionals,” Golding said. “We’ve had nearly 50 practices before the first game, so we don’t really see them as freshmen and we’ll put them in positions that maybe some programs wouldn’t put their freshmen. We know they can play and step up, it’ll be interesting to see what happens.”
The lone transfer for the Wildcats is 6-foot-5 Jovan Crnic from Nis, Serbia. It’s the third consecutive year that ACU has had a Serbian player on its squad, and although he may lack the size that 6-foot-10 Alexsander Milosavljevic had, his shooting ability will be key for the Wildcats this season.
Last year at Northern Oklahoma, Crnic averaged 11.2 points while starting every game for the Jets. He scored a season-high 24 points twice and scored 21 as well, while averaging 43 percent from the field and 38 percent from three. He was named All-Region at the junior college level and can be expected to play several positions for ACU.
The third group for ACU men’s basketball is occupied by two guards in sophomores Drake Green and Isaiah Tripp. Due to injuries and the removal of key players from the team last year, Green and Tripp logged a lot of minutes as true freshmen. Even though they are entering their second year, they will be looked to help lead an men’s basketball program with several new faces.
Golding and the Wildcats also added former McMurry men’s basketball head coach and athletic director Ron Holmes to the coaching staff over the summer. Holmes brings 20 years of college coaching and led the Warhawks to a 347-185 record.
The Wildcats have received little rest during the offseason. Over the summer, the team traveled to Costa Rica to play two scrimmages against the Costa Rican national team and their Invitational team. The Wildcats were able to add several additional practices to their schedule which made the transition for the younger guys easier.
“We had a unique summer with the Costa Rica trip; we had our guys for six weeks during the summer which proved to be really valuable for us,” Golding said. “It feels like we’ve been going a lot but it has helped us a lot, especially with the new guys.”
The lack of rest isn’t something Golding and the Wildcats are nervous about, but in fact have embraced it as a way to continue to transition the program to where it needs to be.
“One thing we’ve challenged this group with is continuing to change our culture,” Golding said. “We’ve changed a lot of things around here. We went from lifting twice a week to now lifting four times a week which is different for our old guys, but everyone has bought in because we’re ready for that next level.”
Last year, the Wildcats were led by Wentz and Cooke offensively, as the duo averaged 11.7 and 9.7 points/game, respectively. Wentz shot 42 percent from beyond the arc, which ranked second in the conference. Cooke added a team-high six boards a game and shot 49 percent from three during conference play.
The Wildcats begin the year at home against NAIA member University of the Southwest on Friday. The Mustangs come in at 3-2 with five games under their belt.