Oct. 29, 2012
RUSTON -- Prior to his first ever game as a head coach for Louisiana Tech, Michael White made a roster face-lift that included the addition and subtraction of seven players, or in other words half the team.
Ten of White's 14 players would be either freshmen or sophomores entering the 2011-12 season, and they would be expected to contribute immediately in his fast-paced, dribble drive offense and his pressure man-to-man defense intended to cause mayhem for the opposing teams. This style of basketball would be a complete 180 from the year before, so growing pains were to be expected.
Despite the new squad, the new philosophies and the newness of being a first-time head coach, White declared prior to the start of the season that reaching the NCAA Tournament every year was the central target for the program. People believed in his vision, but almost no one outside the Bulldog locker room believed it could happen in the very first year.
It almost did.
Thanks to a stretch-run that included a 5-1 finish to the regular season, the Bulldogs carried momentum and confidence into the WAC Tournament as the No. 5 seed. First up in the quarterfinals was perennial conference power Utah State. No matter as LA Tech pulled off the 72-70 upset. Next up in the semifinals was top-seed and WAC regular season champions Nevada. No matter as LA Tech pulled off another 78-73 upset.
Then in the blink of the eye, or maybe ten blinks for those who could not believe what they were seeing, the Bulldogs found themselves in the WAC Tournament finals for the first time since joining the league back in 2001. In its third game in three days, LA Tech ran up against New Mexico State but was unable to pull off the trifecta as it fell short of the automatic berth into the field of 68.
White and the Bulldogs will no doubt look to pick up in November exactly where they left off back in March in Las Vegas at the Orleans Arena after coming within 40 minutes of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991.
"Our late-season success should help us with not only game confidence, but program confidence," said White who's team saw a six-game improvement from the previous year after finishing 18-16. "It also provided momentum for the off-season. Our kids got a taste of success, and it's provided more incentive to take their individual work ethic to another level."
The up-tempo offense and unrelenting defense that delivered night after night of exciting basketball last year returns for this season with a solid foundation laid by the returning players and coaching staff.
"The second go-round for my staff and I should be much more smooth," said White. "It took us a couple of months to find a rhythm and implement a new style. We are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were a year ago in terms of familiarity with our players, our system and our opponents."
This year's squad is still very young with only two seniors returning in savvy veterans Brandon Gibson and J.L. Lewis. Gibson led the team in rebounds last year averaging 4.6 per game while Lewis was a key contributor in the front court. The elder of the group is Gibson, now a red-shirt senior, who has a renewed sense of purpose going into his final year as a Bulldog.
"Brandon Gibson has taken on more of a leadership role already," said White. "He's been very vocal, but losing 15 pounds and getting into the best shape of his life has been a tremendous example for our team. He's focused, committed and set for a big senior season."
LA Tech will look to lean heavily on upperclassmen like Gibson and Lewis to lead on and off the court, but it will also continue to rely greatly on its underclassmen that gave such a tremendous amount of production last year, highlighted by the now-sophomore trio of Raheem Appleby, Kenneth Smith and Michale Kyser.
As freshmen, each of these players broke school records in some form or fashion. Smith broke the single-game assists record with 15 versus Central Arkansas and also recorded the most steals ever in a season by a freshman with 42. Kyser proved dominate in the paint on the defensive end as he finished with a freshman record 60 blocks for the season that featured a seven-block performance versus North Dakota.
The last piece of the trio is Appleby, who earned second team all-conference accolades as a rookie. Appleby is coming off one of the most productive freshman seasons in Bulldog history after also being WAC Freshman of the Year. He averaged 13.9 points per game, contributing at least 15 points in 18 games. He also shot 40 percent from three-point range, another program freshman record set.
"The challenge for Raheem [Appleby], Speedy [Smith] and Mike [Kyser] is to remain hungry and driven," said White. "They were all successful to a certain extent as freshmen, and they have to avoid being complacent and comfortable. Although still very young, they'll be relied on heavily as producers and leaders."
Other key returners this year are juniors Cordarius Johnson, Kenyon McNeail and sophomore Stojan Gjuroski who look to continue to add quality depth to a strong backcourt with long range shooting capability. The team, as a whole, shattered the school record last year for three-point field goals made with 258 thanks in large part to the junior duo that made 99 of those.
One of the worries going into this past offseason for the LA Tech coaching staff was getting stronger on the boards, especially after being out-rebounded in the WAC title game by the Aggies 46-27. As a result, they brought in four players, two junior college transfers and two freshmen, to help remedy the problem.
"We added depth, athleticism and length to our roster," said White. "[Isaiah] Massey has a good mix of size and athleticism and is familiar with our system. Jaron Johnson and Chris Anderson are both extremely athletic and versatile. `Gibby' Talbot brings us size and physicality, and Alex Hamilton is a very skilled guard with good size."
The 2012-13 Bulldog schedule will feature a blend of old and new faces. Games against nearby rivals like McNeese State, ULM, Southeastern Louisiana, UALR and Northwestern State highlight the non-conference portion, along with a four-team round robin tournament in Chattanooga, Tenn. for the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.
The new faces will be seen once conference play starts as the WAC will look very different for LA Tech, in its final year in the league before becoming a member of Conference USA. The revamped WAC will add new members Seattle, Texas State, UTSA, UT Arlington and Denver to replace the departures of Nevada, Hawai'i and Fresno State.
With these new additions also comes a new WAC tournament bracket to be played out March 12-16 in Las Vegas at the Orleans Arena. Each team will play a gauntlet of 18 conference games that begins on Dec. 29 and culminates on March 9 and that will ultimately determine seeding for the postseason event.
"Eighteen league games is a lot, but fortunately a couple road trips are closer," said White. "Unfortunately, we'll have to learn the league again, as five new teams enter. The good thing is everyone else will have to learn the league as well. The returning WAC teams are very good, and the new programs all have their strengths as well."
"We should be more athletic, and we hope to rebound the ball better with this group," said White about his 13 guys who open their first official practice on Oct. 12. "On the wing we are deep and talented. It will be exciting to have different options, as well as different skill sets at our disposal."
No matter how different the schedule is or the conference opponents, the mission is still the same from the first day coach White took the job.
"We are concentrating on continuing to improve and build. Our goal, as it will be every year, is to make the NCAA Tournament," White said. "We were 40 minutes away last year, but didn't finish the job."