The Shepherd Rams men’s basketball team ended the 2016-17 season with a loss to the highly-touted Fairmont State University Falcons in the semfinals of the MEC Tournament.
Two Rams’ seniors were lost in guard Naim Muhammad (who currently serves as a graduate assistant coach) and forward Mike Reed.
Justin Namolik, the head coach of the Rams, detailed that these two are not the only players the team lost from last season. Guard Skyler Roman, a former star player for the Rams who would have been a senior this year, is having trouble with his knees and is not currently a part of the team.
However, Namolik acknowledged that these players’ abscenses will be missed, but he is always trying to mold new leaders.
Namolik has been impressed by the leadership displayed by senior forwards AJ Carr and Gavin McTavish, as well as senior guard Steffen Davis.
Carr was an All-Conference player for the Rams last season, while Davis was an All-Conference Honorable mention. McTavish, senior guard Devin Smith, and junior guard Derek McKnight are other players that Namolik is counting on for key contributions.
The Rams not only have the experience, but the athleticism and the ability to “take teams off the dribble,” Namolik said, making them even more dynamic.
Namolik sees the Rams as having the ability to be good defensively as well.
Getting the season off to a good start is a point of emphasis for Namolik and the Rams.
“With our tip-off [the Clarion Hotel Conference Challenge], we’ve always tried to schedule tough teams because now…we’re going to know where we’re at and what we need to work on and we’ll be ready for conference play when it starts a week later.”
Namolik also elaborated about the team’s high expectations.
“Our program is in a great place right now…I think we had a really solid year last year. Just finishing 19-11, finished fourth in the league, [and] we advanced [to] the semifinals of the conference tournament for the first time since 1997. We returned so much from last year’s team. We return five out of our top seven scorers from last year. We added two really good transfers. So we feel like…we have the experience…we definitely have the ability to contend for [a] conference championship.”
Namolik knows that the Rams will not be able to achieve a conference championship if the Rams do not concentrate every day, then this goal will be difficult to achieve.
Sophomore point guard Thomas Lang has really caught the attention of Namolik. He has displayed tremendous “development”, and Namolik can see him finishing out his career as the starting point guard for his final three years.
In the offseason and practices, Namolik sees that his team has learned two instrumental lessons already. The first lesson is that the seniors have found out how to handle expectations by focusing on how they play, and not necessarily the outcome.
The second lesson was that the team has discovered the significance of needing to play together, which was learned particularly in the team’s scrimmages.
Namolik stressed that the Rams have not taken any extra motivation towards Fairmont State after last season’s loss in the MEC Tournament, but have instead concentrated on getting better as a team. The team’s focus, Namolik explained, has been centered on an MEC Championship, and working on the little things to improve. Doing things together as a team will help get the Rams to this end goal.
In the 2016-17 season, the Rams finished with the same 9-5 record at home and on the road. Namolik noted that the Rams “couldn’t beat [the three] teams in front” of them (West Liberty, Fairmont State, and Wheeling Jesuit). The Rams won at home against UVa-Wise, but lost to them earlier in the season.
However, sweeping seven teams in the MEC showed Namolik that the Rams are definitely capable of making noise in the MEC.
The MEC has numerous diverse guards that have a wide array of skills, so Namolik says it is very challenging to game plan for the opposition. Scouting, Namolik commented, is particularly important, because easy games are hard to come by.
“[We] can lose to anyone, [so we have to] focus on each possession,” Namolik heavily emphasized.
In the 2016-17 season, the Rams were 11th in the MEC in scoring, as they averaged 76.8 points per game. However, this was not a concern to Namolik, who said that he was content with the offense. The goal would be to average about 80 points per game, but having a defense near the top of the MEC like last season will certainly help the Rams’ chances, Namolik emphasized.
The three-point shooting was a particular strength of the Rams last season, as the team shot 36 percent from downtown and averaged close to nine three-pointers per contest. Namolik sees this trend continuing for the Rams this season, but does not want them to “live [with] the shot.”
One of the more significant points that Namolik made was that the Rams can not allow second chance points off of missed rebounds. The Rams were just about the definition of average in this department last season, as the team finished 7th in the MEC in rebounding. Namolik credited the Rams’ struggles here to being out of proper position, which will hopefully be fixed this season.
The Rams have four players 6’6″ or taller in freshman forward Kyle Daggett, Carr, McTavish, and junior forward Winston Burgess. Namolik pointed out that there are not an abundance of centers with size on the Division II level, so there really is no lineup that the Rams have where tremendous size and length will be on display.
Namolik says that the Rams will be “a guard-oriented” lineup that has the ability to defend three-point territory, the perimeter, and just play a good overall brand of defense.
When asked about potential roadblocks to having a successful season, Namolik said the following.
“How will we respond to adversity?”
Namolik acknowledged that the great teams find a way through adversity and the Rams have to play their best ball at the end of the season.
While there are key stars coming back, Namolik wants to integrate new players into the scheme as well.
Hopefully these new players have found their role in the team, because the Rams tip-off the season this Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10 and 11, in the Clarion Hotel Conference Challenge at home in Shepherdstown.
On Friday evening, the Rams will host Bowie State at 7:30 p.m. The Rams will hit the court again Saturday night when they host Gannon at 6 p.m.
Information from the Athletics websites of the University of Charleston, Concord University, Fairmont State University, Glenville State University, Notre Dame Ohio University, Shepherd University, Urbana University, The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, West Liberty University, West Virginia State University, West Virginia Wesleyan University, and Wheeling Jesuit University were used in this report.
Anthony Bracken is the Sports Editor of The Picket. He can be reached at email@example.com