BY NICK LEWIS
Featured photo: SU senior point guard defends against Christopher Newport University with J.P. Krotulis in the background. Jan. 31. Emma Reider photo
Moving past a turbulent offseason, the Salisbury University men’s basketball program will look to continue the winning culture established over the past five seasons. Former SU head coaches Josh Merkel and Andrew Sachs have upheld this level of success, and interim head coach Brian McDermott will strive to do the same.
Last season, the Sea Gulls did not reach the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament for the first time since the 2014-2015 campaign. However, they reached the Capital Athletic Conference semifinals and finished third in the conference with an 18-9 overall record.
With a talented sophomore class this year along with strong senior leadership, they will look to build on their experiences from last season in order to return to the CAC championship.
The distractions off the court have been central storylines for the Sea Gulls since the end of last season. Foremost, the Salisbury players found out that they would be without their head coach for this season and the foreseeable future.
After leading the program to three winning seasons, it was announced by SU Athletics on Oct. 2 that Andrew Sachs went on an indefinite leave of absence. On Oct. 25, SU Athletics added on that Sachs would not return to his former role.
Still with mystery surrounding the reasons behind the move, then-SU assistant coach Brian McDermott was suddenly in the spotlight. McDermott immediately took over the program as the interim coach for this season.
With their first game of the year quickly approaching on Nov. 10, McDermott has had to adjust quickly to his new position. However, established relationships with players and other staff members from his time last season as a voluntary assistant coach have helped to ease the transition.
“I’ve adjusted really well,” McDermott said. “I’m fortunate to have a lot of knowledgeable people around me, people that have been successful already before me and have been here a long time.”
McDermott takes over a team with a few new faces on the court alongside key departures from last season’s CAC semifinalists. Four players will not return to the team this season, including forward Chad Barcikowski and guards Alex McNaughton, Al Leder and Jordan Brooks.
Most notable among these departures is standout scorer Barcikowski, who led Salisbury in points, steals and minutes played per game last season. He capped off his senior year by claiming First Team All-CAC honors.
As a three-point specialist throughout his career, Barcikowski knocked down 162 three-point field goals, seventh all-time in program history. His 37.1 three-point percentage also ranks tenth in program history.
Outside of Barcikowski, Salisbury also loses considerable guard depth due to the departure of Leder and graduation of Brooks. After becoming a consistent starter during his freshman season, Leder’s playing time waned during last season, as he is offering more support off the bench.
Brooks was one of the remaining veterans from Salisbury’s last CAC title in 2015. Brooks finished his career in the maroon and gold with 90 appearances and 12 starts.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, SU will also be without a key winger in senior Jack Ferguson. The three-point specialist was slated to see potential starting time on the court until he received a cancer diagnosis this summer, which has forced him to return home for treatment.
Players to Watch
McDermott will have a strong group of seniors to lean on as he grows accustomed to his new role. One of these seniors is point guard and All-CAC Second Teamer Blair Davis.
With a talented group of freshman guards around him last season, the Lincoln University (Pa.) transfer developed into a leader for the group as the starting point guard of the team. Davis finished just behind Barcikowski for second on the team in scoring with 10.3 points per game. As an offensive catalyst, Davis led the team with 3.7 assists per game.
Davis is one of the senior leaders that the new interim coach will rely on to rally the Sea Gulls. McDermott is expecting big things from the point guard this season.
“He’s a leader amongst men,” McDermott said. “He vocalizes what he wants accomplished, and the guys seem to follow. His work ethic is impeccable.”
One of the talented freshmen that joined Davis on the floor last season was guard Johnny Fierstein. Fierstein came on strong as a freshman last season, ranking fifth on the team in points, third on the team in steals and ultimately pushing his way into the starting lineup.
Starting the final 18 games of the season, Fierstein played a major role in turning around the Sea Gulls after a tough 5-4 start to last season. Over his starting stretch, Salisbury averaged 2.3 more assists per game as a team.
Starting in all 27 games last season, senior forward Chase Kumor returns as the captain of the Sea Gulls on and off the floor.
“He’s a coach’s delight,” McDermott said. “He does all the right things … I expect big things out of him this year.”
Kumor and Davis are part of a senior group that will hope to offer some stability to the team and program during this transition. For McDermott, the success of the team will not come down to one player, but the cohesiveness of the group.
“I can talk about every single individual on the team, but really, everyone’s going to have a role, and for us to be successful, everyone’s gotta know what that is and play well,” McDermott said.
Despite some departures and off-the-court distractions, McDermott has no shortage in expectations of his team this season.
“Our goals haven’t changed. We’re a great ship headed in the right direction,” McDermott said.
Like his predecessor, McDermott sees any season without an NCAA tournament berth as an unsuccessful one. A crucial step for the Sea Gulls to return to the tournament this year is the development of their sophomore class, which also includes guards Gary Briddell and Mike Ward.
With Barcikowski gone, these three players will be looked to in order to garner more production and lead the program back to the successes it has seen before.
Salisbury will have a chance to quiet many of the off-the-court issues early in the season. It opens the year at home against Arcadia on Nov. 10 before hosting two home games as part of the Salisbury Optimist International Tournament the following weekend.
The team’s first opponent in this tournament will be Lancaster Bible College, a team that finished with a 23-6 record last season. It will then play either Johns Hopkins or DeSales, depending on the winner of the day-one matchup. Johns Hopkins is a familiar sight for Salisbury, as they have played many times, and DeSales finished with a 20-7 record last season.
Having success against these teams to start the year could set the table for a successful season for the Sea Gulls as McDermott looks to uphold the winning culture that has been established over the last five seasons.
“I think that fans can really start to embrace an atmosphere of success … and when it comes to the student body, I hope they’re ready for an exciting year of basketball,” McDermott said.