BY CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Three seasons, three NCAA Tournament appearances. The last few seasons have been fruitful for the Salisbury University men’s basketball season, making three NCAA brackets in three consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.
However, the program yearns for the next step in success moving forward. SU Head Coach Andrew Sachs has been at the helm for the last two of those three seasons.
Those two seasons are marked by rivalry battles with Christopher Newport, who have claimed the last two CAC Championships over the Sea Gulls by a combined two points.
That two-point margin is similar to the margin for Sachs and the Sea Gulls to take that next step. The pieces were there after two 20-plus win seasons, but those pieces create a completely different puzzle in this 2017-18 season.
With the departure of a historic senior core, Sachs brought in a revamped squad filled with young talent in transfers and true freshmen. The real question for the season is how quick this team will find chemistry and mature, and then how strong they will become in February after learning lessons early on.
“The goal never changes. It’s to win the CAC and get in the NCAA Tournament. We lost at the buzzer the last two years and it basically cost us a home game in the NCAA Tournament. The league is going to be much better,” Sachs said.
Needing to replenish
The most notable change fans will notice this season is the many departures. Six key players are gone from the team entering the current campaign.
Foremost, veteran forwards Wyatt Smith, Gordon Jeter and guard Justin Witmer graduate from the team as crucial members of a historic run. The three combined for one conference championship and three consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, a first in program history.
The contributions of these three core players are known throughout SU Athletics. Witmer and Jeter both hit their 1,000th point mark last season. The trio leave having tallied over 2,900 points and nearly 1,400 rebounds in over 6,900 career minutes.
Smith had a well-known comeback story too, returning to the team for a strong campaign last season. He had a season-ending injury ahead of the 2015-16 season that left him off the court.
Also not returning to the team this season are previous junior-college transfer forwards Terray Quickley and Barry Bratten. Freshman center Nick Gittings also is not returning to the program following a strong second half to last season. All three players leave for various personal reasons.
Despite the losses, Sachs does see some positives to the new additional youth this season.
“Our depth is much better. We played a lot of guys. Obviously our bench will get shorter as the season starts. We did lose all of our depth from last year,” Sachs said.
“I think a younger squad is more open to learning. They’re not stubborn.”
This young group will be tested quickly as the season gets under way. The hope for Salisbury is that returning players improve and answer the call. One vacancy is within the leadership department where Sachs has his eyes on a few players.
“You hope the guys in your program get better. That’s what good programs do,” Sachs said.
Leadership stepping up
One group clearly vacant from the roster are seniors. The team only brings back two seniors in guard Jordan Brooks and forward Chad Barcikowski.
Brooks has been up-and-down over his SU career, but Sachs does point out that the guard is one of only four SU players to ever appear on three separate Salisbury NCAA Tournament teams.
The Owings Mills, Md. native will be called upon to step up this season.
Barcikowski has become known for his perimeter shooting ability over the last two seasons after transferring to Salisbury from York (Pa.) as Sachs came into his new position.
The Sykesville, Md. native improved to 12 points-per-game (PPG) and 5.4 rebounds-per-game (RPG) last season, but that improvement has not come with leadership on the court, yet at least. He is a player to watch as the season goes on.
“I think if Chad learns to play with emotion and doesn’t get emotional, I think he can be a really good leader, but he has to be able to show that on a consistent basis,” Sachs said.
One player Sachs has his eyes on to excel at leading on and off-the-floor is a junior in Chase Kumor. The Newtown, Pa. native has only seen 25 career appearances in the maroon and gold, but he has made a strong impression on his head coach.
“Chase gets it. He understands the value of team. He’s very good at bringing the guys together. He’s extremely unselfish. He’s kind of what you want like a glue-guy, but he’s also my captain,” Sachs said.
After dealing with a preseason injury, Kumor has found it tough to get back on the court, but he certainly made an impact already on the freshman class. It is a class that Sachs sees future team leaders in two or three seasons down the line.
In Sachs’ first season two years ago, veteran guards overflowed the line-up. Last year, they were hard to come by. This season that depth should be back again with an influx of talented youth.
A foremost concern last season was the point guard spot. Witmer’s experience helped the position as then-freshman Al Leder adjusted Division III play early on.
Leder’s turnovers and inexperience were a worry throughout the season, but Sachs sees a new player in practice this season.
“Leder has accepted the challenge and has come in in great shape. He’s much better than he was last year, much more mature than last year. That’s what we’re looking for,” Sachs said.
With 28 starts now under his belt, Leder is much more prepared headed into his second season of play. Bolstering the depth at the position is also a new transfer, Blair Davis.
The junior Davis comes in from D-2 Lincoln University where he averaged 15 minutes per game in 25 appearances last season. The Towson, Md. native tallied 3.4 PPG and 1.4 APG during the season.
“We needed to create competition and that’s what we did,” Sachs said.
Salisbury also brought in freshman guard Johnny Fierstein who Sachs says possesses a high-ceiling within Division III after drawing D-2 eyes during recruiting.
“High basketball IQ. He has to know two positions,” Sachs said. “He knows the game really well, understands what he’s good at and what he’s not good at. Some guys aren’t really good at doing that.”
The Quince Orchard (Md.) graduate will see time on the ball and off the ball over the course of the season, but expect Fierstein to see much playing time early in the season despite his freshman status.
Returning to the team is Brooks too who offers experience to the young squad but also must show further consistency this season. Alongside Brooks, Braedon Dorsey returns to the fold in his sophomore campaign after contributing offensively off the bench last season.
Freshman guard Mike Ward is another player with a high-ceiling for the Sea Gulls. He is still working his way away from two seasons ago.
Local Eastern Shore fans will recognize a familiar face new to the Sea Gulls as Stephen Decatur High School prospect Gary Briddell takes the floor. Sachs is interested to see what the freshman brings with his strong energy and great rebounding.
“The three freshmen [overall] and some of the transfers have provided major competition in practice that I think some of the guys were shocked at honestly. They’re gonna play because they earned it. They’re not scared,” Sachs said.
One thing really for certain in the front court is the return of Barcikowski, who with his height improved on his rebounding a season ago. The senior will of course bring a streaky offensive force too.
The question marks come through the rest of the depth as Jeter, Smith and Gittings depart the squad. Due to various preseason injuries, it has been a revolving door for playing time in scrimmages vs. Morgan State and Wilmington University, but that is also a positive, offering good depth and experience.
Sophomore forward Lucas Martin and center J.P. Krotulis both return offering some stability to the new season. Despite both players feeling preseason injuries, Sachs sees the two getting good minutes early in the season.
“[Lucas] is another guy with a high basketball IQ. He’s a thin 4-or-5, but he’s got really good footwork. His left hand is much improved around the hoop,” Sachs said.
The two combined for 28 appearances last season. Junior guard Jack Ferguson also returns with a three-point shooting ability that really appeared in the second half of last season off the bench.
Among newcomers looking to contribute quickly is a former St. Mary’s (Md.) Seahawk in James Foley. Foley transfers in to SU after playing his freshman season in St. Mary’s City, where he averaged 4.9 PPG and 3.9 RPG in 16 starts and 27 total appearances.
“In the preseason, he’s really looked good. He’s really gotten himself in shape. He took a year off after transferring from St. Mary’s. I think once he rounds into shape I think he’s going to be really good for us. Skilled kid, real versatile,” Sachs said.
What Foley really brings to the mix is an already developed knowledge of the CAC having been through one season in the league already.
At center looking for a time with Krotulis will be another transfer. Sophomore center Johnson Ogunyoye comes in from Prince George’s Community College where he averaged 4.2 PPG and 5.0 RPG in 16 starts and 30 appearances last season.
“Johnson just goes after the basketball. Rebounding out of your area is something really good rebounders do. Guys who don’t rebound in their area – I don’t care how good they are – are not very good rebounders. He gets after it,” Sachs said.
Ogunyoye has been one of the only players not to face injuries in the preseason, which allowed him to see much time in scrimmages. He has taken advantage of those injury reps, utilizing his 6-foot-10-inch wingspan in multiple ways.
“You get a shot blocker in there. He makes our defense a little bit better. For a lot of guys that don’t guard great and can’t guard the basketball well and give up line drives, he makes up for a lot of mistakes,” Sachs said.
While Ogunyoye is pretty stout defensively to Sachs, the SU head coach sees room to improve on the offensive side. The JUCO-transfer’s ceiling will be determined by his offensive development in the first few weeks.
Sachs sees rebounding as an area of concern headed into the season, but the height and depth is there to get the job done on multiple fronts.
Expanding the staff
Off the court the team is seeing changes too. With previous assistant coach Mike Fitzpatrick leaving for a coaching position at Susquehanna University, Sachs had the opportunity to bring in a few new voices to the coaching staff.
Replacing Fitzpatrick on the staff is former Division III player Daniel Eacho. Eacho possesses Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) blood, having his primary coaching and playing experience in the conference.
Other than time as an assistant coach in Virginia high school basketball and at Hampden-Sydney for one season, Eacho had his most experience at Roanoke College as a player. The 2015 Maroon graduate totaled over 1,000 career points and was a two-time All-ODAC honoree.
“I think he brings a little different [viewpoint,] plus he’s got a post presence where our post guys really feed off him,” Sachs said. “I think he’s a great teacher.”
Joining Eacho are two former Sea Gulls from the past. As a member of the 1994 SU men’s basketball team, Shawn Tucker returns to don the maroon and gold.
Tucker has spent his coaching career primarily at the local and community level, most recently coaching at Parkside High School in Salisbury.
“He’s a local guy. He has real positive energy in practice,” Sachs said.
Former Sea Gull Brian McDermott returns for another season on the Salisbury coaching staff. McDermott was part of the 1996-97 Elite Eight team. He has spent his career coaching around the Delmarva Peninsula, most recently coaching at Sussex Tech in Delaware.
“They bring a lot more maturity in practice. I think it helps. It doesn’t hurt you,” Sachs said.
Before getting into the heart of CAC play early on, Salisbury has a few games to gel and retool their arsenal. That stretch starts at home.
On Wednesday, the Sea Gulls start the season hosting their fellow Eastern Shore school Washington College. They then will travel to Goucher College for their first road contest on Nov. 18.
Goucher and Washington do offer good opponents to figure things out against, after the schools combined for 12 wins last season.
The next week is when the schedule really starts to heat up with an appetizer before the Thanksgiving break on Nov. 21.
Salisbury welcomes in the Virginia Wesleyan University Marlins for the Tuesday showdown in an annual series. The Marlins had a winning record last season at 19-9 (10-6 ODAC), making it to the ODAC Semifinals. It is a solid strength of schedule test prior to their first conference game at Christopher Newport.
For a young team still finding their chemistry, the Sea Gulls could not have drawn a tougher opening-CAC opponent than CNU (27-3, 17-1 CAC). The Captains start the season ranked and have had the Sea Gulls’ number lately.
Despite their own losses, the Captains have retooled well, eyeing their third-straight CAC title. Last season, CNU made it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
It will be a tough test early on for the Sea Gulls, but the stretch will give fans a taste for where the team is at early in the season.
One thing to keep in mind during this campaign is that this team’s peak may not come until January and February, which is exactly where a coach wants it to have postseason success.
“You want to try and get better every day. If you look at last year, we probably could have beaten anyone in December,” Sachs said. “But [this year] if we’re playing our best basketball in February and everybody is healthy, you better not sleep on us.”