If you're looklng for a darkhorse in the 2015-16 Southern Conference basketball race, look no further then the UNCG Spartans. Head coach Wes Miller heads into his fifth season as head coach of the UNCG basketball program, and he might have his best collection of talent to work with since taking over as the interim coach of the Spartans in for Mike Dement in December of 2011, leading the Spartans to an 11-11 record as the head coach.
Last season, the Spartans finished the season with an 11-22 overall record and posted a 6-12 mark in Southern Conference action, as the Spartans got hot down the stretch and even won an opening round game in the tournament before eventually bowing out of the postseason with a 70-52 loss to eventual champion Wofford.
This season, Miller returns talent and experience to the fold, and that should make UNCG a major factor in the Southern Conference race in 2015-16. The Spartans played especially well down the stretch during the 2014-15 season, as the Spartans won three of their final five games down the stretch, which stretched into the Southern Conference Tournament.
The Spartans opened up the league postseason tournament with an 81-76 win over Samford in one of the most exciting games of the 2015 Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville.
One of the most impressive victories for Miller's Spartans came in a late regular-season clash with SoCon runner-up Furman, as UNCG avenged an earlier loss in the season to the Paladins in a major way, posting an 84-49 win. It was a game that showed just how good the Spartans could be when they put together a complete game on both ends of the floor.
UNCG hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since that 2000-01, which featured the likes of David Schuck and Courtney Eldridge, which finished the season with a dramatic Southern Conference Tournament win at the buzzer over Chattanooga, as Schuck's top of the key jumper dropped to lift the Spartans to the title win at the BI-LO Center in Greenville, S.C.
Last season, the Spartans' main issue was staying healthy the entire season. Tevon Saddler --an All-SoCon player and leading scorer coming into the season--was hampered by a knee injury at Furman and was less than 100-percent following an early January trip to Furman. Reserve guard Marvin Smith and center Jordy Kuiper also were plagued by injuries which hampered those players at different points in the season, and the Spartans had trouble maintaining a chemistry last season.
The one starter that has departed from last season is Nicholas Paulos, who was one of top perimeter threats in the Southern Conference. UNCG completed the 2014-15 season ranking in the top five in the final league statistics in the following categories: team field goal percentage (5th/44.2%); scoring offense (5th/69.4 PPG); 3-point FG percentage (4th/36.1%); rebound margin (4th/+0.5); three-point field goals made-per-game (4th/6.5) and blocked shots (4th/3.3). If the Spartans hope to make a run at their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000-01, the Spartans will need to improve their free throw percentage as a team, as the Blue and Gold ranked last in the league in shooting from the stripe last season, connecting on just 64.9% of their foul shots last season.
Four starters are back for Miller in 2015-16, and the vote of confidence given to Miller despite the overall struggles of the Spartans the past few seasons, which extends his contract through 2019, helps ease the pressure on the young head coach heading into this season.
UNCG will pin its hopes on a healthy Tevon Saddler (13.4 PPG, 4.1 APG, 4.6 RPG) this season, who even at less than 100-percent last season, still managed to post a season worthy of all-conference praise, garnering third-team all-league plaudits in 2014-15. Saddler will play one of the wing guard positions, and reminds me of a former Western Carolina Catamount James Sinclair, in terms of the type player he is, although not quite the scorer Sinclair was.
Saddler ranked 10th in the SoCon in scoring last season, posting 13.4 PPG, and also finished the season ranking third in the SoCon in assists, dishing out 4.1 helpers per game last season. It was early in Southern Conference play, which would see Saddler provide one of his most important performances of the season, in a key league road win at East Tennessee State, as he posted a second-straight 24-point performance to lead the Spartans to the 80-79 road upset of the Bucs.
Late in the regular-season against Samford in a key league tilt, Saddler dished out a career-best eight helpers to help the Spartans to an 81-67 win. Saddler also posted double figures in 22 of 31 games last season.
Joining Saddler in the UNCG backcourt will be Diante Baldwin (10.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG), who is coming off an outstanding season and is one of the more underrated point guards in the SoCon. The Gate City product saw action in 25 games last season for the Spartans, drawing starts at point guard in the final 21 games of the season.
The 6-0 jet-quick guard ranked fifth on the team in scoring (10.2 PPG), second on the team in assists (88), fourth in rebound average (4.4 RPG) and third in steals (42). Baldwin found his way into double figures on 14 occassions as a sophomore last season, including posting a career-high 18 points in an early-season meeting with East Carolina.
While the two veterans returning in the backcourt sport a fair amount of experience, it's the frontcourt that will keep UNCG in the mix this season, as Miller welcomes back maybe the top low-post tandem in the league next season, with All-SoCon forward R.J. White (11.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG) and forward Kayel Locke (12.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG) both returning underneath for the Spartans.
White enjoyed a breakout season for the Spartans last season, the 6-8, 280-lb center made his presence known on both ends of the floor in 2014-15. As a redshirt sophomore last season, White saw action in all 33 games last season, including starting 21 games on the season for the Blue and Gold. He came off the bench in the final 12 games of the campaign, and seemingly played better as the Spartans' sixth man last season.
White would end up completing the campaign ranking third in the SoCon in rebound average (6.9) and was second in the league in field goal percentage (55.8% / 155-of-278). His 11.8 PPG ranked third on the team and 14th in the SoCon in scoring.
Perhaps the thing that made White so versatile was the ability to step out and shoot the outside shot, connecting on what was an impressive 40.9% (18-of-44) from three last season. He connected on a career-best four treys in a late-season win over Furman last season. All told, he posted 20 games in double figures, including four games in which he scored 20 or more in a game.
He also got it done in the paint on the opposite end of the floor, swatting away a team-best 50 shots in the season.
Locke-- a 6-5, 240-lb senior forward from Baltimore, MD--started all 33 games for the Spartans last season and ranked second on the team in scoring (12.6 PPG) and ranked 11th in the league. Locke's most notable improvement to his game last season was his mid-range game. His 5.7 RPG ranked second behind only White last season.
Locke performed well in the SoCon Tournament, posting back-to-back double-doubles, as he posted 17 points and 10 boards in the opening tourney win over Samford, while posting 11 points and 10 boards in the following round loss to Wofford.
Marvin Smith (4.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG) will see his role increase with the graduation of Paulos, and Clay Byrd (5.5 PPG, 0.8 RPG) also is back after battling injuries last season. He will be one of the team's go-to-shooters from the perimeter, having canned 44 triples last season as a sophomore. The big Dutchman Jordy Kuiper (3.3 PPG, 2.6 RPG) returns as an excellent compliment off the bench to White.
UNCG's recruiting class was one of the top classes signed in the league from this past recruiting period. Guard Demetrius Troy (Raleigh, N.C.) and Spanish born guard Francisco Alonso (Malaga, Spain) are two of the backcourt performers to keep an eye on this season.