When East Central University men’s basketball fans catch a glimpse of this year’s team for the very first time, some may be asking themselves, “Who are these guys?”
A handful of very recognizable faces graduated last year, and head coach Ja Havens has added eight new faces to the 2017-18 roster to go with just five returnees.
“It’s definitely been strange,” Havens said. “We have eight new ones. We have three transfers and five freshmen. It’s been an adjustment, but it’s been fun. I think as a coach, it’s exciting when you have a chance to work with a new group.”
Fans will get a chance to see the new-look Tigers for the first time tonight when East Central travels to Norman to face the University of Oklahoma in an exhibition contest. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Lloyd Noble Center.
“It will be a great challenge and a good atmosphere. We have a lot of Oklahoma and Texas kids familiar with that program. I’m thankful to (OU head coach Lon Kruger) for giving us the opportunity to come up. We’ll see where we stack up real quick against someone that I think will be a really good team in the Big 12,” Havens said. “It’s good for our program, and it will give us some immediate feedback on what we need to improve on.”
The Tigers will then face two more Division I foes in exhibition play. They travel to Las Cruces, New Mexico, Friday for an 8 p.m. contest with New Mexico State and play at Texas-San Antonio at 3 p.m. Sunday.
“It’s really exciting. We always seek those opportunities out. Each year we’ve had an opportunity to go play against at least one Division 1 team — this year we have three of them,” Havens said.
This year, the ECU men may benefit the most by playing three games before the real schedule begins, Nov. 16 versus Arkansas Tech. That contest will tip off at 7:30 p.m. inside the Kerr Activities Center.
“We’re trying to learn how to play together and how we fit as far as offense and defense go,” Havens said. “Our guys are getting familiar with how each other play. We’re still trying to figure some things out, but I like the attitude of the team all through the fall. They work every day and they get along. We have great chemistry so far.”
Senior Brett Cannon and sophomore Camron Talley are the leading returners for the Tigers. Cannon, a product of Del City High School, averaged 7.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game and started all 33 games for the Tigers last season. Talley averaged 9.8 points and 2.2 rebounds per outing, but those numbers increased as he helped lead the Tigers to a Great American Conference Tournament title and a trip to the NCAA Regional Tournament. He shot a sizzling 51.2 percent (64-of-125) from 3-point range.
“Brett Cannon and Camron Talley were a big part of what we did last year,” Havens said.
One of the biggest keys to the Tigers’ success this year may be the production of ECU’s three other returners — seniors Jeremiah Fleming and Tyler Armstrong and junior Jamey Woods.
“I look for Jeremiah Fleming to have an expanded role this year. He really helped us at times down the stretch. Tyler Armstrong was also key for us coming off the bench last year. And Jamey Woods is in his third year with our program now,” Havens said. “It will be time for those three guys to really step up and grow as players. They were playing behind some really good players, so it’s their turn.”
Three players who left a huge void to fill were Great American Conference Player of the Year Braxton Reeves, Aly Hudgins and Donovan Halsel.
“We had some four-year guys that were here when I got here. I had never been at a practice without those three before this year,” Havens said.
All Reeves did last season was average 22.5 points per game while scoring 741 total points, the second-best single-season offensive output in school history. He hit the most 3-pointing shots in one year with 129 and finished his career with 346 triples, also a school record.
Havens said great players come and go, point to guys such as Henry Pwono and Sterling Thomas before Reeves.
“Braxton Reeves had a season for the ages last year. It’s hard to replace with one player with what Braxton did because he’s special. He’s a once or twice in a career player,” Havens said.
“There’s always going to be an adjustment. Every team is different. Last year’s team was different than the team we had before,” he continued. “It’s someone else’s turn.”
Havens looks forward to seeing how his current group of Tigers improves throughout the 2017-18 season. He and fellow coaches Aaron Hill, Lucas Hunter, Ben Brown-White and Randolph Howell still have high expectations.
“We’ll be different, but I don’t think that means our expectations have dropped or lowered in any way. We’re just going to have to do it with a different personnel group and see who steps up,” Havens said. “I think we have some guys that have the potential to be really good players in this league. Our standards won’t change. We want to go out and compete every night. If you do that, you give yourself a chance to be successful.”