HIGH POINT — Welcoming his team for the start of summer workouts Tuesday at the Millis Center, High Point University men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith hopes it’s the beginning of a reboot after a disappointing season that he says was severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a nightmare,” Smith said.
The nightmare began when the pandemic wiped out a series of exhibition games in Canada in August, then caused a loss of preseason events, a reduction in the number of nonconference games, some players missing over 30 days of practice because of COVID and injuries, games against UNC Asheville to be delayed a day because of a false positive test, the playing of conference games on consecutive days, and a 14-day pause in early January when Smith tested positive for COVID, causing the rescheduling of games against the conference’s two-best teams, Winthrop and Campbell, in the last two weeks of the season.
“It was really a disruptive year,” Smith said. “When we postponed Winthrop and Campbell, it messed up the entire year. We wound up playing them four of the last five games. In a normal year that wouldn’t have happened.
“A veteran team, something like this year wouldn’t have been a problem. But when you are playing two freshmen and two sophomores, umph. You saw it, on the back-to-backs, we’d play great the first night and not so great the second. And it was because the kids weren’t used to it, they just couldn’t do it.”
When it was over, the Panthers limped to a 9-15 overall record and finished eighth in the Big South at 6-11.
“It was a tsunami of issues,” Smith said. “Through it all, I thought our guys were in most games. But going back to the start, losing the exhibition season and the scrimmages we didn’t have and the five early games, that was all part of it.”
Smith recently dodged another nightmare when John-Michael Wright, the Panthers’ leading scorer and only consistent offensive threat last season, put his name in the NCAA transfer portal and then withdrew it.
Smith said the campaign to change Wright’s mind included a video message from HPU president Nido Qubein.
Wright, who was second in the conference with an average of 20.7 points per game, received attention from College of Charleston, Florida Gulf Coast, Georgia, Northwestern Oklahoma, Utah State and Boston College, according to an ESPN report.
“It would have taken a lot of wind out of our sails if he had decided to leave,” Smith said. “But with him coming back, it gives me a lot of hope,”
Wright’s return means the team will be much the same as last season.
Returning players who saw significant minutes last season include guard Ahmil Flowers (the only player back who started every game), Jaden House, Alex Holt, Bryant Randleman and Byrson Childress; center Emmauel Izunabor and reserve forward Caden Sanchez.
Flowers, House, Holt and Childress were freshmen last year. Wright, Izunabor and Randleman were sophomores and Sanchez was a redshirt junior.
The Panthers will also benefit from veteran guard Rob Peterson being back at full strength after missing most of last season because of knee and hip issues. Smith will also have the services of shooting guard Zach Austin, the Winston-Salem Prep and Moravian Prep product who redshirted last season.
Center grad student Lydell Elmore decided not to return; guard Denny Slay II, who graduated, chose to use his final year of eligibility elsewhere; and forward Eric Coleman Jr. left the program after a disappointing sophomore season in which he disappeared after providing an outside scoring threat as a freshman.
Their places on the roster have been filled by three new players: transfer and former Wesleyan standout David Caherer; and two freshmen — Jake Koverman and Brock Williams.
Caherer, who is 6-6, joins the Panthers after stints at Houston Baptist and St. John’s.
“He’s a guy who should be a big help, who can stretch the floor and shoot the 3,” Smith said.
Koverman, a 6-7 forward from Southern High In Harwood, Maryland, averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds. Williams, a 6-0 guard from Burlington Christian, averaged 34 points per game in 2018-19.
Most of the nonconference schedule they will face is to be determined, including, Smith said, the opponent for the opening of the Qubein Center on Nov. 9. and officially the three teams that HPU will host as part of the Legends Classic, which includes HPU travelling to Notre Dame and Southern Cal.
Smith said the Panthers are tentatively scheduled to take a foreign exhibition trip Aug. 2-7, but now to Puerto Rico instead of Canada.
Areas that need improving, according to Smith, are shooting and defense. The Panthers were 10th in the league in field goal shooting percentage at 41.6% shooting from the field and last at a paltry 29% from 3-point range and treys per game at 4.18.
They didn’t defend the 3 either, ranking 10th as opponents hit 35.5%. HPU was in the middle of the pack in field goal defense and scoring defense.
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