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2015-16 Season Preview: USC Upstate Spartans

After two consecutive trips to the postseason the USC Upstate Spartans and coach Eddie Payne are looking to rebuild quickly in a new look Atlantic Sun.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The year was 2010-11 and USC Upstate veteran head coach Eddie Payne had quite a project ahead of him entering the season--infuse 10 newcomers into the fold, and work basically from scratch with only four players with experience returning to the fold.

For Payne and the Spartans, the 2015-16 season won't be all that much different, as Upstate returns just one starter--forward Michael Buchanan-and will face a daunting slate along the way. Though the 2010-11 season did see only four players returning, the Spartans did return two starters with Josh "Chili" Chavis and Mezie Mezie Ozochukwu back. 

That 2010-11 season marks a turning point in Upstate's short Division I basketball history, as it was one that would the addition of players like Torrey Craig, Ricardo Glenn and Babatunde Olumuyiwa forming a foundation of a club that would go on to establish a firm foundation as one that would set a winning standard for the program.

Payne would add even more talent to that base, with the additions of Ty Greene, Jodd Maxey (SC State transfer) and Mario Blessing a year later. Over a five-year span, the Spartans would post 85-82 record since the start of that 2010-11 season, including making it to the A-Sun championship last season for the first time, and made it to the A-Sun semifinals twice. The Spartans have made it to at least the final four of the A-Sun each of the past three seasons. 
The Spartans have had two of the program's top three scorers, and two of the top three-point shooters in school history come through the program in the past two seasons. Aside from Craig and Greene, the Spartans have other serviceable parts, which contributed to 23 wins over the past couple of seasons, with players like Fred Miller and Jodd Maxey representing two of those players. 

Craig became just the third player in program history to ever score 2,000 points, and ranks second to only Ulysses Hackett (1988-92/2,688 career points), as the Great Falls, S.C. native finished out his career with 2,128 career points. 

One year after Greene became the highest scorer in Division I history of the Upstate basketball program, Ty Greene, who finished 11th in the nation in scoring last season (), finished his career as the program's fourth all-time leading scorer with 1,844 career points. His 709 points in a single-season last season marked just the third time in Upstate history and just the fifth time in A-Sun history that a player has finished with 700 or more points in a single season. 

Greene was the 2015 A-Sun Player of the Year, while Craig claimed the honor in 2012. Greene also claimed the most prestigious award ever given to an Upstate men's basketball player, garnering the Lou Henson Mid-Major Player of the Year award after his remarkable senior season. Greene was also one of the best defensive players in program history, including a senior season which saw him post 2.1 steals-per-game to finish with 74 steals for the season--the 10th most in a single-season in school history. 

Greene posted a school-record 103 triples in a season, and his 285-career triples were second to only Craig's 297-career treys. In a win regular-season win over North Florida in 2015, Greene posted the third-highest scoring game in school history, posting 39 points in a road win over the Ospreys--just six points from breaking Hackett's all-time scoring mark of 44 points in a game in March of 1991.  Greene, a native of Knoxville, Tenn., chose Upstate over other offers from Furman and Belmont. 

Over the past five seasons, the Spartans have had a pair of player, in Craig and Greene, finish as the two of the top four scorers in league history, posting a combined 4,012 points and 585-career three-point field goals. Replacing the kind of production that those two players provided the Spartans over the past five years is likely not going to happen, but the one thing players like Craig, Greene and even Glenn have allowed Upstate to do is make it a more attractive place to play basketball. 

The Hodge Center seats about 150 shy of 1,000 spectators, however, the cracker box gym is no cozy atmosphere for foes, and the Spartans have made games in the friendly confines hostile to A-Sun foes over the past five seasons.

Flash back to that 2010-11 season--one which saw the Spartans claim just five wins on the season--and it was a game against East Tennessee State in an early Decemeber A-Sun clash before a raucous crowd of 918 fans that really started the ball rolling in the right direction for USC Upstate basketball. 
On that historic night, Upstate would post a 60-59 win over the reining A-Sun champions. Though the season would result with only five wins, it would be the start of a five-year trend that would see Payne's club continuiosly trend upward.

The 2015-16 Season

This season, Payne will enter his 31st season as a college basketball coach, and as a head coach, he has won 460 games as a college basketball coach, winning at nearly every level, including in a major power five league at Oregon State (1996-2000), as well as having coached at East Carolina (1992-95) and the sub-Division I level at both Greensboro College, Belmont Abbey (1981-86) and coached at the JUCO level at Truett McConnell (1978-79). The 24 wins last season were the most wins Payne has amassed in a single season as a Division I head coach since he winning 26 games at Belmont-Abbey in 1983-84. 

He will have his most challenging season ahead of him this fall, with only Michael Buchanan returning as a starter off that team that made a run to the conference title game last season before losing to North Florida in the title game. Buchanan will head into the campaign as one of the top big men in the league, but he and the Spartans were dealt a below when fellow frontcourt mate ShunQuez Stephens (7.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG) decided to transfer out of the programs recently. 

Despite losing top scorers Greene (20.3 PPG) and Fred Miller (12.2 PPG), who combined to average 32 of the 43 points lost from last season, a solid supporting cast returns, including junior guard Josh Cuthbertson (7.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG) and junior forward Damian Goodwin (6.6 PPG, 2.7 RPG). Cuthbertson is a player which was originally highlighted as Upstate's next great scorer after Craig and Greene, and he will need to step up this season if Upstate hopes to maintain its edge as a program among the elite in the A-Sun, along with Florida Gulf-Coast and North Florida. 

Junior Jacob Schulte (4.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG) and senior forward Marvin Smith (3.0 PPG, 2.4 RPG) round out what should be an adequately deep frontcourt, but only Tristan Thomas returns to support Cuthbertson in the backcourt. 
The good news is assistant coach Kyle Perry once again did a fantastic job on the recruiting trail, bringing in a class dominated by guards. Four guards--Tanner Castora (Strongville, OH), Deion Holmes (Chesnee, S.C.), Jure Span (Latija, Slovenia) and Blake Edwards (Chapin, S.C.) account for the backcourt signees, while the three forwards picked up by Perry's recruiting efforts include, Phillip Whittingham (Columbus, GA), Carson Smith (Fort Mills, S.C.),  Deion Holmes (Chesnee, S.C.), and Malik Moore (Asheville, N.C.).

Perry is responsible for finding the likes of Craig and Greene, and his recruiting prowess and know-how, having spent time as a graduate assistant under the tutelage of Bobby Cremins at College of Charleston has certainly benefited him during his time in the Hub City. He is one of the top assistants at the mid-major level on the East Coast.

The 2015-16 Schedule

As is usually the case, head coach Eddie Payne has stacked Upstate's schedule with quality foes in the non-conference, highlighted by a trip to College Station to take on Texas A&M (Nov. 13) to open the season, while also taking the Spartans on the road to Clemson (Dec. 2), East Carolina (Dec.4), UAB (Dec. 16) and Colorado State (Dec. 21). Last season, the Spartans knocked off Georgia Tech, Mississippi State and defeated South Carolina and Virginia Tech in 2013-14. 

Upstate will host the "Upstate Challenge" for a second-straight season, as the Spartans have invited SoCon member The Citadel and former SoCon member and current Sun Belt member Georgia Southern to be a part of the tournament, slated for Nov. 27 and 28th. 

The league slate will once again include 14 games this season, including a pair of games against the newest A-Sun member New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) on Jan. 9 (at NJIT) and on Feb. 25 (NJIT).