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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.”