Louisiana Tech senior Raheem Appleby is already a noted scorer for the Bulldogs, but he showed off his hops on Thursday night in a Conference USA win over Western Kentucky.
The 6-foot-4 Appleby drove baseline and threw down an emphatic dunk while also drawing the foul. Appleby finished tied with a team-high 17 points in the win as Louisiana Tech improved to 16-5 and 7-1 in league play.
In the final game of Louisiana Tech’s foreign trip to the Bahamas, head coach Michael White could sense his team had had enough of paradise. It was the third game in four days with the scheduled tip against the PJ Stringers set for 8 p.m., giving the team little time to rest before waking up at 4 a.m. the next morning to catch a flight home.
The game came down to the wire with senior guard Raheem Appleby stepping up, and making several clutch plays down the stretch to come away with a 100-94 overtime victory.
“Our guys were kind of halfway mentally checked out. Got off to a rough start. We started five freshmen, and we just really weren’t playing really well,” White said. “It was nice to see late in that game Raheem Appleby step up and make winning plays, which is something hadn’t seen Raheem do in a long time.”
Appleby had missed 12 games during the 2013-2014 season to an ankle injury. The trip showed the senior guard was back to full strength, averaging 16.6 over the three games. Appleby, like Kenneth ‘Speedy’ Smith and center Michale Kyser, have been part of with White from the start of his coaching tenure. In that time, the group have compiled a record a 74-31 record going from the Western Athletic Conference to the new-look Conference USA along the way.
White, 37, one of the nation’s top rising head coaches, has built an NCAA tournament caliber team in Ruston, Louisiana, and he has no plans on leaving for what some would consider “greener pastures” anytime soon.
“I’ve said this 100 times, I got by the motto, ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’” White told NBCSports.com last month.
“I’m just very thankful to be a coach here. I love my job and Ruston and Louisiana Tech. Maybe most importantly I love our roster. The group of young men I get to work with is special. We’ve enjoyed building something and I’m going to continue to enjoy building this program. At the same time my wife and kids are very comfortable here. We came here with the idea of laying roots, and that’s still our plan.”
Coming off a 29-win season, and a four-way tie atop the Conference USA standings, White became one of the hottest coaching candidates in the country, despite reports stating he had been received an informal offer from Tennessee, he decided to remain as the head coach at Louisiana Tech.
He’ll be coaching the group with some of the players he started with while welcoming in a nine newcomers, including a recruiting class he is very high on. The freshmen class includes Dayon Griffin, a 6-foot-5 guard, who will serve as an understudy to Smith, the C-USA Preseason Player of the Year, and all-conference guard Alex Hamilton. Xavian Stapleton, Jacobi Boykins and Joniah White were all rated as three-star commits by Rivals. The 6-foot-10 Joniah White will be part of a young frontline around Kyser, who averaged 3.0 blocks per game.
Although the scenery is still the same for White, the landscape of his team’s conference has constantly been changing during his tenure. Louisiana Tech left the WAC in 2013 for C-USA, the revolving door of college conference realignment the last two years.
In their debut season, the Bulldogs finished with a 13-3, an identical record they shared with Southern Miss, Middle Tennessee and Tulsa, the C-USA Tournament champion.
“I thought Conference USA it was step in the right direction for our athletic department,” White said. “My first impression of the league was that it was a very talented league, extremely coached league, and a under-appreciated league in my opinion. We had a few teams of deserving at least consideration of at-large berths.
“You look at those four teams and UTEP was extremely talented and won several high-major games. Charlotte that won two or three games against BCS schools and UAB beats North Carolina. That’s a pretty good against national competition.”
In July, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa all officially moved to the American Athletic Conference, and Western Kentucky became C-USA’s newest addition. The conference also saw four coaching changes take place as Mike Rhoades was hired at Rice, Michael Curry at Florida Atlantic, Dan D’Anonti a Marshall, his alma mater and Doc Saddler taking over Southern Miss after Donnie Tyndall was named Tennessee’s new coach.
The new, six-year extension White signed in April will give him plenty of time to get better acquainted with he new league members, as his team enters as the clear favorite in C-USA while UTEP, Western Kentucky, Old Dominion and Charlotte will pose as challengers.
There isn’t just buzz around the men’s basketball team in Ruston. In April, 24-year-old Tyler Summitt, the son of legendary Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt, was named the women’s basketball program.
“There’s a lot of excitement on campus and in Ruston about Bulldog basketball and Lady Techsters basketball,” White added.
Summer trips to play exhibition games have proven to be valuable for many college basketball teams, with the exhibitions allowing coaches to evaluate rotations and players establishing better on-court chemistry. Another reason why they’re valuable is that for players whose prior seasons were derailed by injury can work off the rust that may have developed while they were on the sidelines.
That’s the case for Louisiana Tech guard Raheem Appleby, who missed the final 12 games of the 2013-14 season with an ankle injury. Michael White’s Bulldogs still won 29 games and reached the title game of the Conference USA tournament, but there’s little doubt that the Bulldogs could have used a player who averaged 11.2 points per game as a junior.
Appleby averaged 16.6 points and looked like his old self out on the court, according to White.
“It was nice for him to get extended minutes and get into a little bit of a rhythm,” White said. “I think he’s probably a little more confident today than he was a couple of weeks ago because he had to hit some timely baskets for us.”
The Bulldogs have to account for the loss of two of their top three scorers, with Kenyon McNeail and Chris Anderson both out of eligibility. But with key players such as Appleby, fellow guards Alex Hamilton and Kenneth Smith and center Michale Kyser back, Louisiana Tech should once again be a factor in the Conference USA race.
Louisiana Tech has spent much of this season gliding under the radar as one of the nation’s best teams that you haven’t seen play, but the Bulldogs suffered a significant blow when leading scorer Raheem Appleby went down with an ankle injury last Thursday.
According to the Shreveport Times, the injury was bad enough that Appleby had to be taken off of the court on a stretcher.
On Wednesday, the school announced that the ligament damage that Appleby suffered is bad enough that it will keep him out for six-to-eight weeks. He’ll be further evaluated by doctors, according to the school, because he may need surgery on the ankle. That would end his season. If he’s only out for six weeks, he could returns for the Conference USA tournament.
Raheem Appleby hopes to lead Louisiana Tech from WAC to C-USA
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.
Transitioning to a new league is a big storyline with a number of high-major programs but at the mid-major level, an interesting transition is occurring with Louisiana Tech going from the WAC to Conference USA.
The Bulldogs are led by Raheem Appleby, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, and a lot of experience, and they return nine out of their top 10 and nine upperclassmen from a 27-7 (16-2) team that won an NIT game.
Conference USA is radically different now with four teams — Memphis, Houston, Central Florida, SMU — leaving for the formation of the AAC and a staggering eight new teams entering the fray from four different conferences.
With an impressive season and all of that experience returning, Louisiana Tech is the leading candidate to take over Conference USA in its first season in the league.
“Across the board we’ve made subtle improvements,” Bulldogs head coach Michael White said. “I expect our seniors to finish out with a strong season.”
The third-year head coach will be led on the floor by Appleby, who averaged 14.9 points per game last season, but shot the ball 35 percent of the available shots he could take — eighth in the country — and his three-point percentage dipped to 30 percent after 40 percent shooting as a freshman.
As a junior, Appleby is focused less on hunting his own shot and more about higher-percentage play.
“I’m trying to set up teammates more because I know I can score so I’m trying to find them more to make it easier on the team,” Appleby said to NBC Sports.
“He’s really stepped up in terms of his leadership; he’s become more vocal,” White said of Appleby. “He’s become a much better passer and since he’s been a focal point in a lot of team’s scouting reports, how to find the best places to attack on the floor.”
The goal throughout the program, and echoed by each player and coach at Louisiana Tech is one message: NCAA Tournament.
White told NBCSports.com that the NCAA Tournament is the only thing the team worked towards.
“Our goal is to go to the NCAA Tournament as it has been all three years since we’ve been here,” White said. “This, I think, is our best chance and we had a heck of a run last season but didn’t finish the way we would have liked. We have nine out of top ten back and nine upperclassmen, so we have high expectations for ourselves. We do everything within our power every single day to go to the NCAA Tournament.”
That message was echoed to Appleby and the players very clearly as well.
“The goal is the NCAA Tournament, that’s the goal from day one,” Appleby said, nearly echoing White’s statements. “We were just so close last year. We want to get there and not fall short like last year.”
The program hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and the focus for the current players and coaches isn’t on the program’s past but in what it could create by its play this season.
White said a culture has developed at Louisiana Tech where guys work in the gym.
“We spend a ton of time in the the gym, and we continue to challenge our guys being in the gym and working to achieve our ultimate goal, but we are more adjusted,” White said. “Our veterans have played two years and are used to the pace and we’ll continue to learn how to shoot. I think as deep as we were last year, we’re even deeper this year and that will allow our fresh legs to come into play when it equates to shooting the basketball as well.”
Appleby likes being with an experienced group that can now focus on getting better on things in practice since most are on the same page.
“It just makes it so coach doesn’t have to say as much anymore,” Appleby said. “When practice is going on he doesn’t have to teach as much and you have a team that’s basically prepared to play.”
As a coach, it also allows White to work on some areas of improvement or put in some new wrinkles to the playbook thanks to so much experience returning.
“It just allows us to show off in some areas and improve in a lot of little areas and add some nuances offensively and defensively because we’re so used to our base,” White said. “And as we’ve been a team that’s struggled to shoot it at times, we can spend some more time working on shooting the basketball.”
Louisiana Tech will have questions with shooting and the lack of post scoring, but they’re experienced and have won a lot of games as they enter the new-look Conference USA. Appleby isn’t worried about the changes in the competition, but he’s focused on the Bulldogs getting better.
“I’m not sure what to expect (entering Conference USA),” Appleby said. “I expect some bigger and stronger basketball but I expect us to be the same way.”