General health and key transfers have raised expectations.
By ROD GIPSON
Published November 23, 2003
TAMPA - For a program accustomed to lofty heights, last season was a long way from the lights and luster the University of Tampa men's basketball team is used to.
Usually a dominant force in men's basketball in the Sunshine State Conference, injuries, inexperience and lack of depth led to a 6-8 conference record (15-12 overall), numerous bad losses (including the worst league loss in school history) and an early exit from the SSC tournament.
An influx of experienced transfers plus the healthy return of several key players has UT optimistic. And while the squad that tips off the season this weekend with a tournament in Mt. Olive, N.C., isn't expected to return to the Division II national semifinals like the 2000-01 team, it surely is ready to improve on last season.
"We have a lot of new guys and we still have some veterans," said coach Richard Schmidt, entering his 21st season with the Spartans. "And the new guys have played some and the guys coming back got to play a lot last year. That should help us."
That wasn't the case last season, as UT had nine players with nine starts or more, but only one, forward Achille Ngounou, that started every game. The biggest holes were created when forward James Mereus and guard Ernest Williams went down. Mereus, a senior, returns after being a redshirt last season because of a nagging foot injury that slowed him the past two seasons. Williams, who played in 20 games last season despite tendonitis in his knee, returns to the two-guard position.
Schmidt expects his offense to get a jump-start with the addition of point guard Mark Borders. A 6-foot-1 sophomore transfer from Murray State, Borders started 13 games last season as a freshman for the Racers, leading them in assists. Other transfers expected to compete for playing time include 6-foot-5 Division II transfers Kevin Byrd and Matt Klimkowski and 6-foot-7 NAIA transfer Leighton Russell. Klimkowski will miss the first few weeks of the season while resting from surgery to remove bone spurs in his foot, and Russell awaits eligibility clearance.
But the main focus of the offense should be Ngounou. As a junior a season ago, Ngounou was the continuous presence in the lineup, averaging 15 points and 8 rebounds on his way to First-Team All-Sunshine State Conference honors.
"Achille will be an improved player," said Schmidt, whose team opens its home schedule Tuesday against Florida Memorial. "He can shoot and he's working hard to make himself better without the ball."
With the experienced players returning to strength, Schmidt is optimistic his squad can improve upon the six conference wins and avoid blowout losses, such as its school-worse 36-point loss to Eckerd in last season's conference opener. The Tritons stung UT twice more, including an 86-48 beating in the conference tournament.
Other key players include 7-foot-2 center Denis Orlov, who played 14 minutes a game last season, forwards Rob Sargeant and Joe Anders and guards Jon Norris and Marty Harrington.
"Right now we're looking at a lot of different people to see what we have," said Schmidt. "Hopefully we can stay healthy, show up and play well, but right now we have to find out where everybody fits."