Oct. 17, 2008
Cullowhee, N.C. - As the curtain for the 2008-09 men's basketball season is raised with the opening of practice on Friday evening, Western Carolina head coach Larry Hunter has good reason to be optimistic. The 15th-winningest active head coach in NCAA men's basketball with 543 career wins, Hunter returns a solid nucleus including the Southern Conference's fourth-leading scorer, and has added the most talented depth he has had during his tenure.
Western Carolina, which is coming off a 10-21 season last year, returns seven players from a season ago, in addition to one that took a red-shirt. Hunter and staff have brought in seven new faces, including four true freshmen and a trio of junior transfers to help bolster the lineup.
The 2007-08 Catamounts faced a wealth of adversity, losing their leading scorer on two separate occasions, but managed to persevere. Eight of the 10 wins came at home, with WCU earning its' first-ever victory over the College of Charleston at the John Kresse Arena.
"We had a lot of good team chemistry and positive energy the last half of the season," said Hunter during post-season comments with his squad. "It was very pleasing to our staff to watch our players embrace their roles and to show such dramatic improvement both individually and as a team, and were a pleasure to coach."
Even with the glowing remarks from the skipper, Hunter was also quick to point out to the returning players that there is still work to be done.
"We have a lot of work we need to continue to do to be conference champions and be in the NCAA tournament," Hunter began. "We mush not flinch and continue to `chop wood' every day. We must continue to plan ahead, establish priorities, stay focused, work harder and be more consistent every day."
From those parameters set forth by Hunter, the Catamounts embarked on the off-season during the spring and summer. In correlation, Western Carolina had 11 players on campus throughout the summer, including all three summer semesters.
"We really had a terrific off-season considering our spring workouts with the players that are returning and the summer where he had, all told, 11 players on campus taking classes and working out with our strength and conditioning coach, Brad Ohrt. And we've really had a strong fall right behind it with our strength training and with our skill workouts and conditioning. We really have done some positive things," Hunter said.
With team practice beginning on Friday, Hunter hopes to build upon the foundation that was laid starting at the end of last season. The team will have one session on Friday before back-to-back, two-a-days on Saturday and Sunday.
"We will spend a lot of time on some of our fundamental work; our footwork and pivoting, passing angles, defensive stance and block-out assignments and some of our general offensive fundamentals. That will take a good hour each session. We do that just to get guys back and establishing good fundamental habits. Then we will start building both our man-to-man defensive package and building our offensive schemes," said Hunter.
In a twist for this season, Hunter stated that he had already named captains for his team prior to the full squad officially stepping foot on the court together. Juniors Brigham Waginger, Jake Robinson and Brandon Giles were dubbed leaders both on and off the court.
"It's been a while since I have named captains prior to a season starting," Hunter explained. "But we made a decision back during the summer, even before school started, that we had three guys from our first recruiting class that are now juniors. And without question, they are the leaders of our program. They are veterans and are really good people and are very responsible. They've done a terrific job here in the fall in helping our guys bond together as a team."
Giles, an All-Southern Conference selection a season ago, is WCU's leading returning scorer after averaging a team-best 15.3 points per game. He is a long, athletic guard that has the ability to score from anywhere on the floor. His classmate, Robinson, was the only other Catamount to average double-digit scoring a season ago at 10.3 points per game. The sharp-shooting forward from Canton, N.C., enters his third season already ranked eighth on both the career 3-pointers made (134) and career 3-pointers attempted (352) charts.
Waginger, a scrappy, hard-nosed guard, is coming off a banner season defensively. His 69 steals last season not only ranked as the second-best, single-season in school history, but also helped him lead the Southern Conference and ranked 23rd nationally at 2.23 steals per game average.
Rounding out WCU's returning cast are sophomore forwards Blake Gallagher and Richie Gordon, and guard Domnique Quarles. The two post players showed great growth and maturation through the course of the season, averaging over 16 minutes per game on the inside for the Catamounts. Gallagher led the team with a 5.1 rebound per game average.
Hunter also has one returning senior in Tim Magowan, a junior college transfer last year who was sidelined most of last season.
Another "unofficial" returner is red-shirt freshman Harouna Mutombo. The Pickering, Ontario native joined the WCU program in December of last season, sitting out to ensure four years of eligibility. Mutombo was able to practice with the team a year ago, learning the system and intensity under Hunter.
Of the seven Catamount newcomers, there are four true freshmen and three junior transfers. The first-year players include guards Greg Avery (Newark, Ohio/Newark HS) and Keaton Cole (Toronto, Ontario/Eastern Commerce HS), guard/forward Antoine Childs (Beaver Falls, Pa./Blackhawk HS) and 6-9 center, Sam Smithson (Horse Shoe, N.C./Hargrave Military/West Henderson), who is expected to red-shirt in 08-09.
Western's incoming junior class includes guard Joey Parker (Centralia, Ill./Southwestern Illinois College), and forwards Kendall Russell (Chicago, Ill./Cloud County CC) and Adrian Gailliard (Sewell, N.J./Lackawanna College).
Combined, WCU has eight players from 6-6 to 6-9 in height, with 11 players over 6-2.
"I think this is, by far, the deepest team I have had since I've been at Western Carolina," Hunter said. "It's the most talented; we're the biggest, strongest and we do have some experience."
Hunter will have a familiar face in former Catamount standout, Anquell McCollum, by his side as an assistant coach this season. But off-season departures left Hunter to sign two new assistants - Andre Gray and Wade O'Connor.
"I feel good that we have added in Coach O'Connor and Coach Gray, two really good basketball people. They are two guys who are good family men who are passionate about their work and about young people. I have been very impressed with not only how they have interacted with our departmental staff, but also with our players," said Hunter.
Western Carolina opens a tough non-conference slate on Friday, Nov. 14 against the Connecticut Huskies in Storrs, Conn. The early season schedule also includes the program's first-ever trip to the Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage on Nov. 26-29. The field includes host Alaska-Anchorage, WCU first-round opponent, San Diego State, Hampton (MEAC), Louisiana Tech (WAC), Northern Illinois (MAC), Portland State (Big Sky) and Seattle (Independent).
Hunter concluded, "There are a lot of things that still have to happen for us to be a good basketball team yet, but we have a lot of potential. We are going to get after people and we aren't going to fear anyone."