With the season just days away, I thought it would be best to ask some questions to Stephen F. Austin blogger Matt Adkins, operator of Lumberjackfans.com. These questions are mainly to get Kentucky fans acquainted with the Wildcats’ first regular season opponent of the year.
I highly suggest that you give Matt a follow on Twitter (@Lumberjackfans), since he’s sure to have many great insights as the season rolls along.
Below, a “CN” indicates my questions, while “MA” indicates Matt’s responses.
CN: Anyone who spent every weekend last March on their couch remembers the great upset that Stephen F. Austin had over West Virginia and having a last-second tip-in separate them from a Sweet 16 berth. How has the tenor of the program, and—as a result—the fans changed due to that increased exposure and success?
MA: It's gone a long way. A long way for a small school in the middle of East Texas. I've traveled to cities thousands of miles away from our campus in our gear and get great comments because they now recognize my SFA basketball shirt. We've always had pride in our basketball program, that started before we even beat VCU a few years ago. But winning at this (that) level brings an entirely new enthusiasm to the program. Season tickets have doubled in the past few years and attendance is the best in the conference (double the next closest school) every year.
CN: Due to Stephen F. Austin’s status as a mid-major program, only college basketball junkies had really heard of their outstanding forward, Thomas Walkup. Walkup became a household name for college hoops viewers, however, after scoring beaucoup points against West Virginia and Notre Dame in the tournament. How is Stephen F. Austin going to cope with the loss of their star senior? Whom will there be to help fill the big shoes he left?
MA: There's no replacing Thomas Walkup. That's really all there is to it. But with this program now we expect the next kid to step up. We didn't think we'd have another Matt Kingsley (2009 SLC POY, lost to Syracuse in tourney) but then there was Jacob Parker (2014 SLC POY that beat VCU), and then there is Thomas Walkup (2-time SLC POY). But, it's still a huge loss obviously. Returning is starting Junior G Ty Charles and starting 6'8 Sophomore F TJ Holyfield, as well as 6th man G Dallas Cameron who has 5 NCAA tourney games under his belt. Charles had somewhat of an average sophomore year after a great freshman season, he will need to be a go to scorer AND leader. TJ Holyfield has everything to be the next SLC POY if he can control his game and stay out of foul trouble. Outside of that, it's a ton of new guys. Both freshman and JUCO guys that easily still gives us the best talent in the league. CJ Williams (6-7 240 F) was an unsung hero in the WVU game, but unfortunately has been lost due to a heart condition. JUCO Jr Leon Gilmore is my top newcomer to watch. Along with JUCO G Isaiah Traylor. With this many new faces on top of a new coaching regime...probably the most question marks we've had in a long time. One big note potentially for this game, Ty Charles has been sidelined with a shoulder injury for a few weeks and could be out.
CN: Another casualty of Stephen F. Austin’s storied 2015 season was Brad Underwood, a coach who became in high demand after the Lumberjacks’ tournament success. How is new head coach Kyle Keller going to fit in during his first year? What is to be expected from him?
MA: It won't be easy for Coach Keller, he knows that. And his schedule won't do him any favors. After Kentucky, SFA travels to Louisiana Monroe and Arkansas, UAB at home, and then the Diamond Head Classic where we start with Tulsa, and then potentially San Diego State and Utah. He's got huge shoes to fill obliviously [sic], and a lot will be expected with him with our fan base (back to support and success). He'll be a better recruiter than Underwood, and I think that's already evident with SFA being finalists for 3 and 4 start players (basically unheard of for this conference). How he puts them together will be another part that we'll just have to see. I think we'll see a similar system to Underwoods, led by defensive pressure but maybe a littler quicker on offense. Obviously you can look at his time at Texas A&M and get a good grasp of his system. I'm excited to have Coach Keller with us.
CN: Early looks at this Kentucky team seem to show that it’s one of Calipari’s most athletic teams, and they’ve certain to improve their post play from last season. How would you describe some of the characteristics of this year’s team?
MA: Honestly...I'm not sure. Again with so many new faces and a new coach, even being dialed in as much as I am (I think) it's hard to know what to expect overall. Our best characteristic traditionally has been team chemistry. Each year we've had rough starts to the season but a month or so when they begin to click, they simply just destroy the Southland Conference...and it's not been close. That will be the main thing I'm looking for early in the season, how the guys react to these game when we're obviously out talented but also how they respond with each other. We're getting next to no preseason hype, being picked 2nd in the conference with so many unknowns just shows you and I how bad the SLC is overall, as always. But that's fine with me. When January and February comes...we'll be good. I've got a lot of faith in them.
CN: Finally, this game is going to be on national television in prime time. There’s no doubting that plenty of people are going to be watching this opening salvo to the season. What does Stephen F. Austin’s gameplan need to be if they’re to go into Rupp Arena on November 11th and upset the #2 team in the country?
MA: It's going to be tough. REALLY tough, and to say otherwise is stupid. We'll need to limit and create turnovers. Obviously normal and easy to say, but the talent mismatch will be strong so if we can force turnovers and keep the ball away from the rim on the defensive end then I think we can keep it respectable. One of our best traits was from tourney teams was a deadly 3-point shooter (Deshaunt Walker 2013-2014 and Demetrious Floyd 2015-2016), I don't know that we have that right now. We'd need those to fall as well. For an upset? Well, I think we'd need to play a perfect game. Or see if we can get Walkup some sort of extra game of eligibility. We ended a scrimmage with North Texas in a 64-64 tie, where we had 22 turnovers, shot 39% from the field and 65% from the line. That...would equal a blowout in Lexington. That said, I'll be there in my purple and beyond pumped for a trip to Rupp. Axe'Em!