(November 30, 2016) — Tarleton hosts Midwestern State Thursday evening, for those of you who have been hiding under a rock or perhaps just haven’t adjusted to the earlier start to Lone Star Conference play.
I found it a good opportunity to catch up with my friend Andy Newberry, sports editor at the Wichita Falls Times Record News and the best Division II basketball reporter I know. I hope you enjoy this, our second annual Tarleton-MSU basketball rivalry commentary, as much as we did putting it together.
Q: These teams combined to win the Lone Star Conference, LSC Postseason and South Central Regional titles last year, are they going to be that good again?
AN: I don’t have a great feel for how good this MSU team can be and I think that may be true of much of the LSC. There are a lot of pieces in place but talented transfer guard Shawn Nottingham, who can really get in the paint, just made his debut and 6-6 wing Romello Walker will join as soon as first semester is complete. So more than usual, the best this team has to offer will probably be in February.
BK: I think they have the potential to be as good, but I believe with the resurgence of West Texas A&M and with Angelo State continuing to knock on the door to regional supremacy, I feel like a team may have to be even better to win those titles this year.
Q: Biggest difference you’ve noticed this year for the Mustangs? And the Texans?
AN: MSU had great offensive cohesiveness early on and better ball movement, but the Mustangs haven’t been the defensive team we’d come to expect in recent years. There was no way to replace Defensive Player of the Year Trevor Fuller but one has to think that defense and rebounding gradually improve. The backcourt is deep with skilled options.
BK: Tempo and youth. Tarleton has shown a desire to play fast this season similar to their 2013-14 team led by Chuck Guy and De’Andre Upchurch. The two seasons since then they have been more of a traditional Tarleton team as far as tempo goes. Now against Midwestern, a track meet probably does not benefit Tarleton as much as it does against some of its other early opponents, so we may not see that Thursday, but we have in other games this season. The youth movement is fun to watch with some redshirt freshmen playing over half the game and contributing significantly. There are mistakes, of course, but they come with high ceilings in terms of potential.
Q: Some freshmen are contributing, which is not usual with these two clubs, Logan Hicks for MSU and Anthony Davis for TSU, what gives, what’s impressive there?
AN: Hicks, a 6-2 guard from Temple, has been a revelation with deep range and great offensive confidence. One longtime MSU insider told me he’s the most skill freshmen the program has had since the 1970s. As to be expected, the defensive end is a challenge for a true freshmen but he’s earned a key reserve role already.
BK: The impression I get is both these programs have reached a level where even being in Division II they are able to sneak in and steal away the occasional high school prospect that could contribute at any number of mid-majors. I’ll obviously know a lot more about Hicks when I see him in person, but with Tarleton redshirt freshman forwards Davis and Josh Hawley, you can already see the clear increase in athleticism and skill in comparison to past freshmen. I think this is a big step forward for both programs to find four-year players like these that have the potential to develop into pillars to build around.
Q: With earlier start to conference season it feels like we still don’t know as much about each team, but who do you guess joins these two in the top four of the LSC?
AN: I see a good four team race between Angelo, TSU/MSU and WT with Commerce as a possible dark horse.
BK: West Texas A&M comes to mind right away with an impressive start that includes victories over two nationally-ranked opponents. The talent level is certainly there and now it’s Tom Brown’s third year, right on time to start seeing his system really take hold. Obviously Angelo State is good, they have a lot back and are very skilled and have a good early season thumping of St. Mary’s to build off of. Also, Texas A&M-Commerce is a team I’ve seen in person against good competition at Tarleton’s Thanksgiving Classic and their undefeated start is no fluke. The Lions have a good veteran coach in Sam Walker and he’s stocked with cat-quick guards and a quality, hard working big man. There are other teams on the rise, and I feel the conference is even better top to bottom than in the last two banner seasons, but the top 4 will come from those five teams and it is far too early to tell which will land where when it’s all said and done.
Q: Best story on Texans/Mustangs this year?
AN: I’ll go with junior point guard Devante Pullum, another guy who the Mustangs believed in as a four-year guy and then stuck with through academic and personal issues. He’s rewarded their faith with leadership before the season and on the court. Very improved shot, too, for the former Little Elm quarterback.
BK: Coach Lonn Reisman having successful surgery to remove prostate cancer has to take the cake, but on the court, I feel the best story has been the aforementioned freshmen. While it’s early and we are still learning about both these teams, the one constant seen game-in and game-out have been the flashes of brilliance these guys bring to the floor. And not only their talent, but the electricity they bring. When Hawley gets off the bench and tomahawk dunks with the same type of hops shown by Texan-turned-Harlem Globetrotter Davene Carter and people realize it’s a freshman doing that, there is an electricity that takes over in the gym. Same with Davis being one of those stretch-4s Tarleton is known for, a 6-7 forward who hit 3 first half 3-pointers their last time out. We’ve all seen what Tarleton can accomplish with those how players. And their attitudes – Davis has been the easiest guy to get emotion shots of because he’s always fired up, always clapping his hands and just a fireball of energy. It’s been a real pleasure to watch, and I imagine I’ll be saying the same of Hicks after Thursday night.
Q: An area Texans/Mustangs still looking for improvement?
AN: It’s obviously defense as the opposition has enjoyed hot starts versus Mustangs, who have also struggled in some games with defensive rebounding. However, that was area they felt they improved the most last weekend in Colorado. Defense couldn’t string together stops in loss to St. Mary’s.
BK: Free throw shooting cost Tarleton in its only loss, which came under eerily similar circumstances to MSU’s loss to St. Mary’s, both at home from the foul stripe with less than two seconds left. But also the 3-point shooting is a little better than it was early on last year, but not much. They also show a tendency to get in foul trouble, another big obstacle in the one-point loss to Colorado St.-Pueblo. Coach Reisman has consistently said the biggest thing is chemistry, just knowing each other better on the court, and I’m sure many coaches across the country would say the same thing this early in the season.
Q: You mentioned Hicks. Who are some of the other reserves who have been significant contributors early on?
AN: The Mustangs are more interchangeable than some years, probably a product of losing all 5 starters from the LSC titlle team. Sheldon Hagigal some nights plays the 6th man role perfectly but he hasn’t played at 100 percent yet. Hicks we mentioned. The key big man off the bench has been Nemanja Krtolica, a 6-8 sophomore who plays with a hustling style you love if he plays for you and really dislike if he’s wearing the wrong color.
BK: For Tarleton, Hawley, of course, brings great length and explosive ability, and Curtiss Anderson is 6-9 and a leaper. Stephen Edwards is usually quick up of the bench, too, and is a true point guard with great speed and quickness. Denzel Smith is a dangerous threat on the offensive end.
Q: Last year we went on and on about some of the great meetings in this rivalry. How good do you feel the rivalry is for the continued success of both programs?
AN: The programs definitely push each other and inspire each other’s fan bases. The players look forward to these games which I think in recent years explains the road team seemingly having a good shot whether it’s in Stephenville or Wichita Falls. The only thing worse for MSU fans than losing while hosting the regional had to be seeing Tarleton State win it. Angelo State could definitely break through, I thought they would a year ago, but Tarleton-MSU is the best measuring stick until further notice.
BK: I think both programs are blessed to be in the LSC because there have always been multiple high quality teams to push them and ensure the intensity, whether it’s pertaining to recruiting, day-to-day operations, practice or game time, remains high all the time. When Tarleton really began to break through in the early 2000s, there was Northeastern State, then it was Central Oklahoma. Tarleton has never found itself in a position to be a sole dominating force in its league, so there has always been an intense approach to trying to remain at/near the top. Over the past several seasons it’s been MSU. While ASU has also gotten involved and made it a virtual toss up among the top three over the last two years, MSU, I feel, is still the primary measuring stick for Tarleton, and I imagine that works vice versa. If I tell someone about a player Tarleton signed, they sooner or later ask who MSU has brought in. It’s reached the point it’s difficult to discuss one program without the other because both know – if we can beat Tarleton/MSU we have to be pretty good.