SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury University men's basketball team tips off the 2015-16 season this Friday, November 13, welcoming a new head coach on the sidelines. The Sea Gulls return 10 players from last year's NCAA tournament team.
First-year Head Coach Andrew Sachs is a familiar face to Sea Gull fans. He was an assistant coach for Ward Lambert's teams that enjoyed a great deal of success in the early 1990s. At that time, the Sea Gulls played an exciting, up-tempo style - something Sachs also plans to employ now as the head coach.
"It's fun to play this way," said Sachs, who enters his 25th season as a college basketball coach, including the past six years as head coach at Bethany (W.V.) College. "It's hard, you've got to be in great shape, but it's fun to play this way and it allows you to play a lot of guys and it gives them a little more freedom. You're going to see an extension of our half-court defense into the full court. You're going to see us getting up and down the floor and taking early shots in transition."
The Sea Gulls went 21-8 last season, winning the second Capital Athletic Conference tournament championship in program history before advancing to the NCAA tournament's second round. This year's team returns three starters from that squad, while one more will miss the season due to injury. Wyatt Smith's lost season, however, may be to the team's gain.
"The toughest thing as a coach in a new position is selling the players on something other than the system that they had success with last year," Sachs said. "I think the injury to Wyatt Smith may have helped that because that allows guys to step up and do more and they're not relying on one person. I think they've bought into it."
"Wyatt is such a good player that he has to get touches," Sachs said. "But what it does for us now is we can spread the wealth a little bit. I think the way we're going to play is going to benefit Gordon Jeter the most with his length and his athleticism."
Jeter was named the CAC's Rookie of the Year in 2013-14. His athletic ability and length can cause matchup problems for other teams, and Sachs plans to utilize these aspects of Jeter's game. Last season, Jeter started all 29 games, averaging eight points and 5.6 rebounds.
Gillum, who will miss the start of the season due to injury, is expected to work his way back into the starting lineup at the center spot. The Germantown, Maryland native played in 23 games as a reserve last year and led the team in field goal percentage with an impressive 68 percent mark.
Another senior, Savercool, will play both forward positions. He played in all 29 games last season and made 12 starts. Savercool, who averaged 8.1 points, was the team's third-leading scorer.
"Kyle gives us some stability, and some versatility, which I like," Sachs said. "He's tough, and he can make shots. He can stretch the defense out a little bit, but we're going to need him to post some guys. We expect a lot out of Kyle this year."
Barcikowski combines his shooting ability with the potential to score around the basket to add more versatility up front. He will see minutes at both forward spots for the Sea Gulls.
Replacing Conor Strickland, the team's starting point guard and consummate floor general, is no easy task, but Sachs believes he has two players who are ready to accept the responsibility.
"I think the question in our backcourt is going to be the point guard position, having lost Conor Strickland," Sachs said. Strickland started every game a year ago, averaging 3.1 assists per game. "We're going to go with two guys that were here last year. We've kind of pushed Jordan Brooks into that position, I think he's done a really good job and he helps us defensively and he's done a good job taking care of the ball so far. Adrien Straughn brings us some experience off the bench, and he could start too. I think both of those guys give us some stability there."
Brooks played in 28 games last season. He shot an efficient 47 percent from the field and looks to impact the game defensively with his size and athletic ability. Straughn averaged five points in just under 20 minutes per game, and he will look to push the pace in an effort to create open shots for the bevy of shooters on the roster.
Harris was good on 42.6 percent of his shots from outside the three-point arc and averaged 6.6 points per game, while Witmer hit 41.7 percent from three-point land and scored 12 points per game. Witmer was named first-team all-conference at the season's end. With the help of Harris and Witmer, the Sea Gulls ranked third in the CAC, making 35 percent of their three-point attempts.
Senior Justin May and freshman Jack Ferguson will see time as key reserves at the wing positions for the Sea Gulls. Senior Bobby Bates and freshman Chad Strothers will add depth at both guard positions.
The Sea Gulls open the schedule this season at the Widener Tipoff Classic, facing Rowan University and either Widener or Washington (Md.) College. From there, Salisbury plays in the Hoopsville Classic in Owings Mills, Maryland in late November and a tournament in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where it will face two NCAA tournament teams in the College of Wooster and Concordia (Wisc.) University.
Along with those events, the Sea Gulls welcome preseason No. 2 Virginia Wesleyan College to Maggs for the only non-conference home game on this year's slate.
"It's a brutal schedule. We'll be as battle tested as anyone in the country going into our conference tournament," Sachs said. "You're playing three tournaments where you're playing back-to-back, which when you make the NCAA tournament in Division III you're playing back-to-back games, so that's great; not only that, you're playing really good teams."
The CAC schedule opens with road games at Christopher Newport University and Frostburg State University before coming home for Penn State University-Harrisburg before the winter break. The conference schedule is back loaded for the Gulls with four of the final six conference games at home before the CAC tournament begins on February 23, culminating in the championship game on February 27, as the Gulls look to repeat as CAC champions.