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.
Hope springs eternal in college basketball (and sports in general), with the start of a new season sparking optimism amongst programs across the country. That’s certainly the case in the Southern Conference, with multiple programs welcoming back many of their key contributors from a season ago. One of those programs is Western Carolina, which returns all five starters from a team that finished 9-9 in SoCon play (14-19 overall).
Expected to lead the way for the Catamounts is redshirt senior guard Trey Sumler, who played nearly 38 minutes per game and posted averages of 18.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per contest. While Sumler’s percentages remained about the same when compared to his redshirt sophomore campaign, his scoring increased by nearly five points per game. With the Catamounts having to account for the graduation of their top two scorers from the season prior, Sumler had a lot more to manage in 2012-13.
“I think it was just the nature of our team. We were more inexperienced and didn’t have any seniors a year ago,” Hunter told NBC Sports. “He’s not a ‘selfish’ scorer, he just plays. You look at his other stats and he rebounded well, he was our leading assist man. He’s a very efficient player.”
Lat season Sumler finished with a possession percentage of 26.9%, and his efficiency rating of 105.2 ranked seventh in the SoCon among players who factored into at least 24% of their team’s possessions according to kenpom.com. But even with the numbers he put up Sumler still saw the need to fine tune his game, and that meant spending a lot of time in the gym during the summer. During a three-month stretch from May 15 to August 15, both Hunter and Sumler estimated that the guard put up more than 30,000 shots.
“Most of [my offseason work] was in the gym,” Sumler told NBC Sports when asked about how he prepared for his senior season. “I was able to get a couple of our DVDs from the coaches to watch film. It wasn’t for anything specific; it was just to see what I could and could not do, and what I could have done.”
With all five starters back, including forward Tawaski King (11.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and guard Brandon Boggs (10.3, 3.6), what’s required of Sumler will likely change some. Without as much pressure to both be the primary scoring option and find quality looks for his teammates the 6-foot-2 Sumler may be in line for an even better senior season, even if his scoring numbers don’t reach last year’s level.
“His scoring may go down some this season, because I think we have more pieces to the puzzle,” said Hunter, who used Sumler exclusively at the point last season. “I will probably move him more to the off-guard position just to try to get him a few more opportunities.”
Those extra opportunities have the potential to make the Catamounts a contender in a conference race that has the potential to be as wide-open as any in recent memory. Defending champion Davidson is still to be respected but the Wildcats have some significant personnel losses to address, most notably 2012-13 SoCon Player of the Year Jake Cohen.
Elon, like the Catamounts, returns all five starters from last season and after winning 21 games the Phoenix are the early favorite to win the conference in the eyes of many. And with programs such as Appalachian State, Samford and Wofford also having plenty of experience, multiple teams began practice with realistic hopes of not just contending but winning the SoCon.
“I think it’s really going to be a great conference race,” said Hunter. “There are a lot of veterans returning, and a lot of good teams in the league.”
Western Carolina is hopeful that by the time conference play rolls around they’ll be well-positioned to make a run at the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996. That bunch nearly made history as the first 16-seed to be a one-seed, as Phil Hopkins’ squad fell to Purdue by two points in the first round. One of the players on that team was Anquell McCollum, who scored a game-high 21 points for the Catamounts and is now an assistant on the Western Carolina coaching staff.
When a former player from a program’s glory days returns to campus fans enjoy getting nostalgic, but those conversations can also serve as a motivating factor for the current players. Instead of hearing about the road paved by the heroes of the past, Sumler and company aim to write their own chapter in the Western Carolina history books.
“It would mean a lot, not just to me but for the other four seniors,” noted Sumler when asked what an NCAA tournament appearance would mean to him. “I know Coach McCollum was a part of that ’96 team and a lot of people talk about that. 1996 was a long time ago, so we feel like it’s about time to take that next step.”
With Sumler leading the way, Western Carolina is more than capable of taking that step.