West Plains, Mo. – Chris Popp says he's "cautiously optimistic" about his Missouri State University-West Plains Grizzly Basketball team and its prospects for the upcoming season.
The defending NJCAA Region 16 champions boast one of their deepest and most talented rosters in years, but they'll be playing one of the toughest schedules in program history during the 2018-19 campaign.
"We're going to have to be ready early," Popp said. "We play four games in the first six days of the season, and it doesn't slow down from there. Our freshmen are going to have to mature quickly, and our sophomores will need to lead the way."
Five players return with starting time
The roster includes five returners who started at different points last season. Those sophomores are 6-foot, 2-inch guard Niekie Thomas, Springfield; 6-foot, 5-inch guard Eric Lovett, Jonesboro, Ga.; 6-foot guard Jodhe Campbell, Leicester, England; 6-foot, 7-inch forward Burone Edwards, San Antonio, Texas; and 6-foot, 7-inch forward Dontell Brown, Lexington, Ky.
"That group is expected to lead the way for our freshmen as they learn to play our way," Popp said. "At the same time, all of them have their hands full competing for playing time. There's not a lot of separation in talent with this team. We could probably play any mix of the group that will suit up and be just as good on any given night."
Several newcomers join the team
Newcomers include Sardaar Calhoun, a 6-foot, 6-inch guard from Tappahannock, Va.; Dravon Clayborn, a 6-foot, 1-inch point guard from Chicago, Ill.; Henri Langton, a 6-foot, 11-inch transfer forward from Leicester, England; D'Andre Vilmar, a 6-foot, 4-inch guard from the Bahamas; Ben Gory, a 6-foot, 1-inch guard from France; Darius Carter, a 6-foot, 1-inch guard from Memphis, Tenn.; Houston Johnson, a 6-foot, 7-inch transfer forward from Willard; Sam Wallin, a 6-foot, 3-inch guard from Springfield; and Da'Vantre Vitor, a 6-foot, 2-inch guard from Lake Charles, La.
"With depth, we have a great problem – figuring out who's going to play and what groups work well together," the third-year head coach said. "To this point, they've shown themselves to be a great group to work with and have bought into what we're trying to do as a team."
Schedule includes early tests
The group will be tested early. The Grizzlies are scheduled to compete in the 6th Annual Texas East-West Challenge in Dallas Nov. 3-4, where they will play Lee College and Trinity Valley Community College. Trinity Valley finished last season ranked fifth in the nation.
"It's a huge tournament that has a lot of high-level teams," Popp said. "We're excited to be a part of it."
Other important games during the season include contests against last year's national tournament runner-up, College of Southern Idaho, at the Indian Hills Community College Classic in Iowa; and home and away games against defending Jayhawk Conference champion Coffeyville Community College, Southwest Tennessee Community College, Murray State College and Northern Oklahoma College-Tonkawa, the latter of which was ranked last season.
The Grizzlies also will go on the road to face Northwest Mississippi Community College, which was ranked as high as No. 14 last year, and will host Indian Hills Community College, which finished the 2017-18 regular season undefeated and ranked No. 1.
In their game last year, the Grizzlies held leads as high as 17 points against the Warriors on the Warriors' home court before falling in a 2-point contest. That game will forever be remembered for the one hour delay caused by shot clock malfunction, Popp said.
They'll also face their Region 16 counterparts – Mineral Area College, Moberly Area Community College, State Fair Community College and Three Rivers College. In fact, this year the Grizzlies will face Three Rivers three times during the regular season, with the first meeting set for Nov. 13 in West Plains.
"Our schedule is brutal. It's the toughest schedule we've had," Popp said. "We've added three top five programs on top of what we normally play. We play everyone we played last year, except Iowa Western Community College, which backed out due to travel."
Tough schedule could pay rewards
Developing such a schedule is high risk, but it could pay a high reward later in the season. "It allows you the chance to be the best that you can be," Popp said.
Last year's team faced a lot of adversity as it traversed a similar schedule. "We learned to battle, to overcome, and did it against great competition," Popp said. "We struggled as we dealt with injuries through region play, but I believe, in large part, because of all we faced, we were able to bounce back to win the Region 16 tournament and were only 2 points way from a national tournament appearance.
"That team had competed at such a high level throughout the season, they were prepared to make that run. That's what's great about this schedule. I expect we will have our difficulties. But if we compete and progress through it, it will help us in the long run," he explained.
One element makes such a run different this year, though – the added target of defending region champion.
"It's a different dynamic when you are defending." Popp admitted. "Last year, we were coming off of a probation year, trying to build a program from ashes. This year, we're trying to take the next step. It's a different feeling to be the hunted.
"But with this schedule, we're still hunting. We're facing perennial top 10 teams. With our pre-region schedule, it's less about the target on our back. It's about competing with the elite."
For more information about the Grizzly Basketball program, visit the team's website or call 417-255-7991.