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2015-16 Season Preview: Western Carolina Looks to Battle in the Southern Conference

The Western Carolina Catamounts are looking to challenge in the SoCon with some solid returnees and a veteran head coach.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

College basketball is one of those sports that is maybe the hardest to maintain extremely long runs of success, and one of the program's that has seemingly been there year-in and year-out since the start of the 2008-09 season has been Western Carolina.

Larry Hunter has proven himself as one of the most successful coaches in college basketball, and his first win in the 2015-16 season will mark his 830th victory in his coaching cateer, which spans 44 years as an assistant and head coach. In his 35 years as a head coach, Hunter has won 664 games. He has an amazing track record of success.

The problem for the Catamounts, however, has been getting over the top in the past few campaigns. For coach Larry Hunter, the goal has always been bringing the Catamounts a second Southern Conference title, and ultimately, a second trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Catamounts haven't tasted SoCon glory since 1996, when the Catamounts rode the cape of assistant coach Anquell McCollum to the NCAA Tournament for the first and only time in program history.

Making life even tougher this season will be the fact that the Catamounts must replace their top player from a season ago and one of the top players in the Southern Conference, with the graduation of James Sinclair.

Sinclair was simply sensational in the Catamounts' opening game of the Southern Conference Tournament last season, with a conference-high 30-point, 14-rebound effort against the Bucs. Sinclair also led the SoCon in steals last season, and was one of the big reasons the Catamounts paced the league in steals last season.

The season would end at the penultimate stage of the Southern Conference Tournament, however, as Western would once again lose 73-61 to Wofford in the Southern Conference Tournament to end the season. A recurring theme during the Larry Hunter era.

Sinclair also did that kind of thing during the regular-season, as he posted a career-high 40 points in a regular-season triple-overtime loss at home to VMI. The good news for Western, however, is that a solid core senior group returns. Guys like guards Rhett Harrelson (11.8 PPG, 2.0 RPG) and Mike Brown (13.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG) and forwards Justin Browning (5.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG) and Torrion Brummitt (11.2, 6.3 RPG) will all be looked to as key pillars for the 2015-16 season for the veteran head coach.

Brown returns as maybe the go-to-scorer for the Catamounts. Western always seems to have one star that seemingly steps up and leads the group, and that has been the case going all the way back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Catamounts always seem to produce one of the SoCon's top scorers. Guys like Terry Boyd, Frankie King, Anquell McCollum, Bobby Phillips, Dondrell Whitmore, Kevin Martin, Brandon Giles, Trey Sumler and Sinclair were all examples of that type player.

Brown will be one of the top athletes in the Southern Conference this fall, and is not only a potential breakout player on the offensive end, but should also be one of the top players on the defensive end of the floor for Hunter's Catamounts.

Brown would post double figures in 27 games last season for the Catamounts, which included three double-doubles, and was one of the league's top rebounding guards, along with Furman's Stephen Croone.

Brown posted a career-high 27 points in a road win at UNCG, and marked just the second time in Brown's career that he would eclipse the 20-point scoring plateau.

Brown finished the campaign with his most effective campaign shooting the ball from long range, connecting on 42-of-114 from three-point range, which computes to 36.8% on the season.

His 16 rebounds in a late-season loss at Furman marked a career-high. In the Southern Conference Tournament against Wofford, Brown posted a 12-rebound effort. His 13.8 PPG was second on the team in scoring last season, and his 18 blocks led the Catamounts on the defensive end of the floor.

Brown will be joined in the backcourt this season by the sharp-shooting Rhett Harrelson, who is an outstanding perimeter shooter. Last season, Harrelson was able to finish the season ranking sixth in the SoCon in three-point field goals made, connecting on 85 triples on the campaign. He connected on 37.9% from three-point range last season to rank 10th in the league.

Harrelson also finished tied with teammate Justin Browning for seventh in the SoCon in steals, averaging 1.7 SPG. He finished the season with a total of 45 steals.

The most improved player on the Catamount roster last season was Torrion Brummitt. Brummitt was the Catamounts' fourth-leading scorer last season, and he finished the campaign with four double-digit rebound games and three double-doubles. He shot 46.3% from the field last season. Brummitt started all 31 games he appeared in for the Catamounts last season.

Browning--a senior from Sylacauga, AL-- is the "do-everything" player for the Catamounts. He is the scrapper, or the guy who does the dirty work for the Catamounts. If there's a loose ball on the floor, Browning is usually the first one battling to come up with it.

Some solid reserves also return for Hunter's club heading into the 2015-16 season, led by guards Devin Peterson (3.0 PPG, 1.0 RPG) and Haboubacar Mutombo. Mutombo wasn't added to the roster until December last season, and should see some more action in 2015-16. Peterson is solid on the defensive end of the floor, and saw action in all 32 games last season, with a pair of starts.

Hunter went back to his recruiting reservoir in Ohio to bring in a talented potential impact player at one of the guards, in Elijah Pughsley, who comes to Cullowhee from Lima, Ohio.

Pughsley is a player that figures to see some action in the backcourt rotation for the Catamounts this season, and comes off a prep career, which saw him average 17.7 PPG, 6.7 APG and 6.3 RPG. Most of those informed on Hunter and Western Carolina basketball will remember Nick Aldridge, who came to Western Carolina as highly thought of recruit out of South Webster High School in South Webster, OH.

Another young, talented performer that could factor in to Hunter's plans in 2015-16 is junior college transfer Deriece Parks. Parks, a 6-5, 155-lb guard out of South Georgia Tech College where he was the team's leading scorer, averaging 15.9 PPG and shot over 40-percent from three-point range. Parks needs to put on some weight if he wants to play the three and effectively provide a low-post threat, but he will most likely equate as a shooting guard.

There are four players, two of which are newcomers, that could be a major part of Western's plans for the 2015-16 season in the low post. Marc Gosselin comes to Western from Lyon, France, and will add another inside-outside threat for the Catamounts. He will factor in as yet another perimeter threat, which is the kind of big man that Hunter has effectively used during his tenure as the head coach, and the 6-7 Gosselin will factor in as a Jake Robinson-like player in terms of his threat as a scorer.

One of the reserve returnees in the frontcourt will be Charlandrez Brooks (2.3 PPG, 2.3 RPG)out of Duncan, S.C. Brooks saw action in 18 games last season, posting a career-high four points in a late-season clash with Furman.

The other returnee from a year ago is 6-5 sophomore forward Ashley Williams (0.7 PPG, 0.4 RPG), who appeared in 16 games last season. Grayson, GA product Jesse Deloach rounds out the newcomers for the Catamounts. The 6-7 forward played his prep ball at Mt Pisgah Christian, where the post player averaged 9.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG and 4.0 BPG as a senior.

The Catamounts have a solid corps of four veterans back, but someone will have to assume the role of the go-to-guy, and the Catamounts have seemingly had guys with the uncanny ability to seamlessly step into that role time and time again. Will Mike Brown be the guy that helps the Catamounts challenge for the program's second NCAA Tournament bid?