On Thursday afternoon, Brad Underwood, the new head coach of Illinois, was invited to Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch and sing ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ during the seventh inning stretch.
While the ceremonial first pitch went well, his rendition of the ballpark classic did not go as smoothly.
Thursday night the Oklahoma State program announced that junior forward Tyrek Coger has tragically passed away after collapsing following a team workout. A newcomer from Cape Fear (North Carolina) CC, the Raleigh native was expected to compete for minutes in the front court under first-year head coach Brad Underwood.
“Tyrek was excited to be at Oklahoma State and had such passion for the game and was looking forward to being an OSU Cowboy,” Underwood said in a statement released by the school. “Losing a member of the team is like losing a member of the family. But we know our loss pales in comparison to the pain his family is going through.”
Coger completed his high school career at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh before moving on to the junior college ranks, where he played the 2013-14 season at East Florida State CC. After sitting out the 2014-15 academic year Coger resumed his full-time studies at Cape Fear CC, committing to Oklahoma State in late-June after originally making a pledge to attend Ole Miss.
Jacob Parker, Stephen F. Austin gain confidence from communication
Senior forward and reigning Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker wasn’t always a star-quality player at Stephen F. Austin. After two years under previous head coach Danny Kasper, Parker put up ordinary numbers on ordinary teams.
But under new head coach Brad Underwood last season, Parker’s game expanded. The same thing happened to Parker’s teammates and it helped launch the Lumberjacks to unprecedented program success, including an undefeated record in Southland play, a 29-game win streak and a trip to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
Underwood’s strategy as a head coach certainly paid off — including setting a culture predicated on a theory of, “getting better every single day we’re in the gym,” — but he’s also tried to keep it loose and fun for his players so their personalities come through and they can focus on basketball when the time comes.
“Once he came in, it was a whole different lifestyle,” Parker said to NBCSports.com. “With Coach Kasper, it was clean shaven, crew cut, nothing out of the ordinary. Coach Underwood came in, he was a whole different guy. A lot of fun to be around him. Guys were in the office all the time last year. It’s just a good environment to be around.”
With the new coaching staff in place, the changes became particularly apparent for Parker, both on-and-off the court, as the 6-foot-6 forward had a tremendous year in 2013-14. After putting up 7.2 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore, Parker became the conference’s best player, averaging 14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game as a junior while shooting 53.8% from the field, 46.9% from three-point range and 79.8% from the free-throw line.
But the changes also came off-the-floor. Parker grew his hair out long for the first time and Underwood said he began to show his personality and leadership ability.
“This is the first time in my life I’ve ever grown out my hair. So that was a big change for myself,” Parker said.
Parker’s coach described him as a “really quiet leader,” but teammates respect Parker in-part because he’s grounded and simple, often sticking to activities he’s done his whole life and working very hard on the court. His teammates and coaches like the person that Parker has become and Underwood likes his star player’s personality.
“He’s a guy that at the end of the day would probably be just as happy being the star of Duck Dynasty,” Underwood said. “He loves to hunt and fish, it’s part of his upbringing. He’s very creative.”
Communicating with players and learning about hobbies and problems is a huge component of the Stephen F. Austin men’s basketball program. Underwood wants players to have fun and remain loose away from the court and he believes earning that trust will help lead to better communication in games and on the court.
“I think that communication is the single most important thing to the success of a program,” Underwood said. “I think, as a coach, I’m trying to push these guys to get better every day, knowing the hardest thing to get a kid to do is to be an everyday guy. I need to understand why they have a bad day. Whether they stayed up for an econ test, or problems at home and to do that we need communication.”
That kind of focus on communication led to Underwood being able to reach his new players on his style of play nearly immediately. Parker said that the communication on the floor was positive from the moment Underwood took the job and the team grasped what they were trying to accomplish.
“Right when he got down here he kind of showed us what we would be doing,” Parker said. “Our defensive principles are very strong, which is very important. He showed us about the kind of offense we would run. And it was eye-opening because I’d never played like that.”
The ability to instantly learn the new concepts coupled with a balanced team that could shoot helped Stephen F. Austin have a special season. Four players ended up averaging double-figure scoring last season and five players shot at least 35 percent from the three-point line.
There’s some questions heading into the season now that Desmond Haymon and Deshaunt Walker are gone from the wing, but senior forward Thomas Walkup is back with Parker and the team is anxious to build on last season’s success. The rotation for the Lumberjacks should be deeper this season.
“I love the increased depth. I think that this will be a more competitive team in practice, which I hope makes us much better,” Underwood said. “I think this team has the capability of maybe scoring the ball a little easier than last year’s team. We do lose a great deal of experience.”
Stephen F. Austin might not be able to go unbeaten in a deep Southland Conference this season, but they’re hoping that the new pieces are able to come in and grasp the concepts quickly like Underwood taught the whole team last season.
The Lumberjacks want to get back to the NCAA Tournament and make some more noise.
Stephen F. Austin has a lot to live up to if they hope to achieve similar success in 2014-15. The 2013-14 iteration of the Lumberjacks went 32-3, 20-0 in the Southland, won 29 straight games and beat VCU in the Round of 64 before falling to UCLA.
That’s quite an accomplishment for first-year head coach Brad Underwood, a former assistant of Frank Martin, who had tremendous balance and perimeter shooting last season. Although Stephen F. Austin loses leading scorer Desmond Haymon and another double-figure scorer in Deshaunt Walker, they do return Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker, as well as Southland Tournament MVP Thomas Walkup and point guard Trey Pinckney.
The trio of returning starters is more than enough with others filling the departed players’ shoes to once again win the Southland Conference Title, as the Lumberjacks were one of the country’s best non-power conference teams last season.
Underwood’s team is the heavy favorite and he received an eight-year deal after last season.
The early runner-up candidate behind Stephen F. Austin is Sam Houston State, who returns seven contributors from last season including Southland Newcomer of the Year and 6-foot-4 senior Jabari Peters. Peters started all 35 games last season, along with three other returning starters: 6-foot-0 guard Kaheem Ransom, 6-foot-1 junior Paul Baxter and 6-foot-11 center Michael Holyfield.
This is a deep and experienced team. The Bearkats lost in the Southland title game last season and finished 24-11 (13-5).
Northwestern State is situated next as junior point guard Jalen West averaged 19.4 points and 6.4 assists last season for an offense that averaged 86.6 points per game, good enough for second in the nation. The Demons also return Southland Freshman of the Year, 6-foot-2 guard Zeek Woodley and 6-foot-9 center Marvin Frazier.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi returns after a 14-4 conference mark and all-league candidate John Jordan is back at point guard. The Islanders could compete in the Southland as 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Rashawn Thomas also returns. McNeese State and Incarnate Word both have all-conference caliber players in senior guards Kevin Hardy and Denzel Livingston. Both of those players are capable of making plays all over the floor and each averaged over two steals a game last season.
It’s worth noting that Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word are playing full 18-game Southland schedules this season for the first time, but both remain ineligible for the NCAA Tournament after transitioning from Division II. Central Arkansas, Houston Baptist and Lamar are all banned from the postseason due to low APR scores.
Of the 13 teams in the Southland, only eight may play in the postseason in 2014-15.
Out: Oral Roberts
PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jacob Parker, Stephen F. Austin
The reigning Southland Player of the Year, the 6-foot-6 Parker is one of three returning starters for a team that reached the Round of 32 in 2014. The senior averaged 14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.4 steals per game last season while shooting 53 percent from the field, 46 percent from three-point range and 79 percent from the free-throw line. Efficient and productive from all over the floor, Parker will be the key for Stephen F. Austin to maintain last year’s success after the Lumberjacks lost some valuable seniors.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SOUTHLAND TEAM:
Kevin Hardy, McNeese State: Do-it-all 6-foot-2 senior guard averaged 11 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2 steals per game last season.
John Jordan, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi: A dynamic, play-making senior guard, the 5-foot-10 Jordan averaged 14.8 points and 5.4 assists per game as a junior.
Denzel Livingston, Incarnate Word: The 6-foot-4 senior combo guard averaged 20.3 points per game and a Southland-leading 2.5 steals per game as he scored 20 or more points in 10 of the last 11 games in 2013-14.
Jalan West, Northwestern State: The 5-foot-10 junior point guard averaged 19.4 points and a Southland-best 6.4 assists per game last season and could de-throne Parker for Player of the Year honors.
1. Stephen F. Austin
2. Sam Houston State
3. Northwestern State
4. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
5. McNeese State
6. Incarnate Word
7. Southeastern Louisiana
8. New Orleans
9. Nicholls State
10. Abilene Christian
11. Houston Baptist
12. Central Arkansas
With nine of the 15 players on the current Stephen F. Austin roster being either juniors (five) or seniors (four), the 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes will be important ones for head coach Brad Underwood and his staff. Saturday afternoon the Lumberjacks, who won 32 games and upset VCU in the NCAA tournament last season, landed their first commitment in the Class of 2015 in the form of 6-foot-3 guard Lasani Johnson.
News of Johnson’s commitment was reported by Eric Bossi of Rivals.com.
One of Johnson’s best attributes is his ability to put points on the board, as he averaged 28 points per game as a junior at Bishop Dunne HS in Dallas. For his efforts Johnson was named first team all-state by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches. Johnson’s improved his scoring in each of his three years at Bishop Dunne, averaging 14.8 points per contest as a freshman and 21.8 ppg as a sophomore.
Of course Lasani’s father, Larry Johnson, should be familiar to many basketball fans. The elder Johnson was a standout at Skyline HS in Dallas, and after two season at junior college he helped UNLV win a national title in 1990 and reach the Final Four the following year (he also enjoyed a lengthy professional career in the NBA).
“If I was someone on the outside looking in,” Johnson said, “of course I’m going to be interested.”
Said his mother: “I don’t think he gets tired of it. But he wants his own identity. I think the only time it might upset him is if people say, ‘That’s why he’s good.’
“Because that’s not why he’s good. It’s because he’s working hard.”
And always pushing himself. Before Johnson, 17, was old enough to drive, he’d walk to the gym to shoot baskets — even when it was 100 degrees outside. Johnson also skipped the last two Bishop Dunne homecoming dances to work on his game.
Next year Lasani will join a backcourt that will lose just one senior in guard/forward Connor Brooks. Redshirt junior Thomas Walkup, junior college transfers Demetrious Floyd and Jared Johnson and junior Trey Pinkney will all have eligibility remaining, as will the six backcourt underclassmen (three freshmen and three sophomores) on this year’s roster.
To follow along with the 2014 Coaching Carousel, click here.
To say that Brad Underwood enjoyed a success debut season as the head coach at Stephen F. Austin would be an understatement. Underwood’s Lumberjacks finished the season with a record of 32-3, reeling off 29 consecutive wins and winning the Southland Conference’s regular season and tournament titles before falling to UCLA in the NCAA tournament Round of 32.
“Coach Underwood has indicated to me that he will remain a Lumberjack,” Stephen F. Austin AD Robert Hill said in the release. “I look forward to another exciting season with him leading our program, and we will continue to move forward with Coach Underwood and what should be a great basketball team.”
The reigning Southland champions will have some personnel losses to account for heading into 2014-15, with guards Desmond Haymon (14.5 ppg) and Deshaunt Walker (11.7) and forward Nikola Gajic (9.6, 5.0 rpg) out of eligibility. However forward Jacob Parker (14.2, 7.1) and guard Thomas Walkup (13.1, 5.3) both return, which will certainly help Underwood and his staff address the departures of Haymon, Walker and Gajic.
The Lumberjacks will add a six-member recruiting class to the program, a group that includes junior college transfer Clide Geffard. Geffard, who played at Northwest Florida State last season, began his college career at Samford and was a Southern Conference All-Freshman Team selection in 2012-13.