Nov. 10, 2011
Cullowhee, N.C. -
Coming off its third-consecutive winning season a year ago, reigning Southern Conference Men's Basketball North Division co-Champion Western Carolina opens its 2011-12 season Friday night against the South Carolina Gamecocks at the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. Tip-off is scheduled for just after 7:00 pm.
Friday night's game will be televised live on SportSouth (Channel 649 on DirecTv; 437 on Dish Network) with Bob Rathbun on the call alongside Eddie Fogler. The broadcast is also available online through ESPN3.com, the sports network's online video streaming outlet.
Fans can also follow all of the action through the Catamount Sports Network broadcast locally on WWCU-FM, Power 90dot5 in Cullowhee and 920 AM WPTL in Canton, with live streaming audio through Stretch Internet online at www.CatamountSports.com.
It is the eighth all-time meeting between the Catamounts and Gamecocks with WCU still searching for its first victory over the Southeastern Conference (SEC) foe with a 0-7 overall mark. The two schools met on the hardwood three-consecutive seasons from 2004-05 through 2006-07 including the lone Cullowhee meeting in `05. All told, Western Carolina has played 10 of the 12 current SEC teams with a pair of victories all-time over Tennessee and most recently a 62-59 overtime win over Arkansas in 2003.
WCU is seeking its fifth season-opening victory under seventh-year head coach Larry Hunter, entering Friday night with a 4-2 overall mark in the first game of a season with two wins over Bowling Green and victories over UNC Asheville and St. Catharine College.
The Catamounts posted an 18-15 overall record a season ago, winning a school-best 12 games in league play en route to a third divisional title - and the second in the past three seasons.
Western Carolina enters the 2011-12 season with just three seniors including Harouna Mutombo, Keaton Cole and Sam Smithson. Otherwise, the squad is made up of underclassmen including seven redshirt and true sophomores with a pair of true freshmen.
"I like my team in terms of I've got hard-working players that are very committed to what we're doing," said Hunter during the SoCon's preseason teleconference. "We've got some athleticism. We're not overly big; and we're not overly experienced with just the three upper classmen and the rest sophomores or freshmen - although some of those sophomores played an integral role and grew up for us a year ago."
Hunter added, "We've had a great off-season. Perhaps the best off-season of any group since I've been here at Western Carolina, so that was a plus. Guys have gotten better."
Mutombo and Cole were selected as co-captains during the preseason and according to Hunter have really bought into that role for the team, commenting that "both are in really good mindsets" as the season gets underway Friday.
WCU has to replace two of its three leading scorers from a season ago as Mike Williams (graduation) paced the squad with a 15.4 point per game average and Richie Gordon (graduation) - who garnered the SoCon's Defensive Player of the Year honor last season - averaged 10.2 points per outing. The Catamounts do return double-digit point production from Mutombo at 10.1 points per game overall - mark that included a 13.1 point scoring average over the final 18 games of 2010-11.
Also returning is the defending SoCon Freshman of the Year, Trey Sumler. Named to the Mid-Major Freshman All-America team, Sumler averaged 11.5 points per game including a 13.4 average against conference opponents.
"The thing I like most about Trey is that he is a terrific competitor and he plays both ends of the court - he does not take time off on the basketball court. He has a good motor, plays with a lot of energy and a lot of passion," Hunter said.
Among the second-year class, Hunter is also high on the play of swing man, Brandon Boggs, who averaged right at eight points per game last season. He is flanked by classmates Tawaski King and Preston Ross in forward positions, with Ishmael Hollis moving back to the block to add depth. Sophomore class additions Tom Tankelewicz and Dillon Dunford who both sat out a season ago after transferring will both play as guards for WCU.
The Catamounts added a pair of first-year players in Kenny Hall and James Sinclair - both of which will be counted upon this season for WCU to be successful.
Although Hunter projected a starting lineup that featured Sumler, Mutombo and Brandon Boggs in the backcourt with Ross and King in the front, he did point out that it could take time to settle into a true rotation.
"I don't know exactly what our rotation eventually is going to be; I think that could easily take six-to-eight games to settle into your roles real comfortably. We're not a real veteran team so it's going to take us every bit of that long to probably get to where we need to be," Hunter said.
Western Carolina looks to build upon its recent successes while trying to keep its focus on winning the conference tournament and returning to post-season play.
"The guys are hungry. We haven't accomplished our goals yet completely. I think our guys have bought into what we're doing pretty good - we've just got to keep working and see if we can get better and achieve some of the things we'd like to achieve in our program," concluded Hunter.