Devin Green will be a key player in the paint for USF this year. (Photo: Michael G Brown_Michael G Brown Photography)
When the USF men’s basketball team gathered for their first practice of the season, coach Chris Johnson addressed the elephant in the room.
How were the Cougars going to replace departed seniors Drew Guebert and Trevon Evans, two of the top scorers in the NSIC and best players in USF history?
“It was one of those things where it’s like we’re going to talk about this one time and that’s about it,” said Johnson, who enters his 12th season at the helm with a 195-143 record. “This team doesn’t want to hear about those guys or need to be reminded they’re gone. They know.”
The Cougars went 19-11 last year with Evans and Guebert leading the way. That duo combined to score 41.6 of the team’s 79.3 points per game, and gave Johnson a comfort level in knowing he had go-to seniors anytime the game was on the line.
Now, with sophomore Chase Grinde the top returning scorer from a year ago at 7.2 points per game, it may take awhile to get back to that point. There’s talent, size, and the players are eager knowing opportunities are there thanks to the graduation of their leading scorers. But, Johnson says, the holdovers also slowly realized through practice and scrimmages how much of an impact Guebert and Evans had.
“Last year we could, quite honestly, play poorly for 30 minutes and then one of those two guys could put on a cape and go get you 20 points in a 10-minute stretch and give you a chance to win,” Johnson said. “This team isn’t wired that way. We’re gonna have to respect every possession. We’ll have to be better with the detail-oriented stuff.
“You don’t lose Drew and Tre and become more talented,” the coach added. “But no one has tried to come in and be that guy who puts it on himself to replace those guys, and that was my fear. I think we’ve got guys who fit well for being a balanced team.”
Grinde, a 6-foot-4 bruising forward, could be poised for a big year, and so could Troy Houghton, a 6-4 guard who’s played sparingly but will start at off-guard this season. They’ll work with a new point guard in Trevon Adams, a 6-2 transfer from Kansas City who’s been pushed in practice by freshman Jack Thompson, a 6-1 Eagan, Minn., native.
Senior guard Milan Surlic, a Serbia native who averaged 6.0 points per game last year, will provide backcourt depth along with Jaxon Simons, a 6-2 transfer from Nebraska-Kearney.
If that group can come together quickly it could make the Cougars into a sleeper, because they should be strong on the inside.
6-foot-9 juniors Tessy Pal and Austin Slater return to serve as a 1-2 punch in the paint that helped USF finish plus-10 in rebounding last year, a number they hope to repeat this season. Pal averaged 5.6 rebounds and 1.0 blocks last year and Slater averaged 4.7 rebounds – now that pair hopes to improve on their respective scoring averages of 4.2 and 2.9. Devin Green, a 6-7 senior, will complement Slater and Pal’s length with muscle off the bench.
Johnson admits he’s still learning what many of his players can do, or which ones play best with each other. He doesn’t want to label it a rebuilding year, but doesn’t want to burden his young players with too high of expectations, either. But he’s long been the kind of coach who embraces uncertainty. It means he gets to do a lot more actual coaching.
“In complete honesty I’m not sure I know yet what this team should be,” he said. “I’m not sure what, by the end of the year, would be considered good and what would be disappointing. Last year you knew what you were getting from every guy on the roster. Now we don’t know with a lot of guys, so we’re still figuring out what is gonna be the recipe to having success.”
AT A GLANCE
LAST YEAR: 19-11
COACH: Chris Johnson (12th year)
KEY LOSSES: G Trevon Evans, F Drew Guebert, F Justin Taylor
TOP RETURNERS: F Chase Grinde, F Tessy Pal, G Troy Houghton
TOP NEWCOMERS: G Trevon Adams, G Jaxon Simons
OPENER: Friday vs. Lincoln in Kansas City