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Evansville Aces forced to retool after losing some of program's most successful players

The Aces lost two of the best players in program history. Marty Simmons must now rely on an up-tempo, guard-heavy rotation to continue winning.

When it mattered most, Marty Simmons trusted just a handful of players.

The Evansville coach called only six names in last year’s Missouri Valley championship game. That slim rotation nearly got the program its first NCAA bid in 17 years, before Northern Iowa’s Wes Washpun spoiled the Aces’ 25-win season with a buzzer-beating jumper.

Washpun’s shot also ended the careers of D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius. These were two all-time Evansville players. Balentine averaged at least 20 points per game the past three seasons, and leaves as the leading scorer in program history. Mockevicius nearly averaged a double-double for his career (11.1 points per game, 9.3 rebounds per game), and was the nation’s leading rebounder last year.

Simmons must also replace Adam Wing and Mislav Brzoja, two of the other six players that logged minutes in the loss to the Panthers. How can he retool after losing a massive chunk of a team that was achingly close to an NCAA berth?

"We’ve got several returning guys, but the biggest challenge will be how their roles are going to change," Simmons, the 10th-year Evansville coach, said. "We may ask some of the guys that didn’t score or rebound much to do more. The last two or three years we’ve asked the same group of guys to do the same thing."

Senior guard Jaylon Brown will be one of the players asked to do more. He had what Simmons called a "breakout season" in an expanded role last year (10.8 ppg, 2.9 assists per game, 30.1 minutes per game). That’ll need to continue next season as he becomes the Aces’ most established scorer, and he’ll have help in the backcourt as Ohio transfer Ryan Taylor becomes eligible. Evansville went from one prolific scorer in Colt Ryan directly to another in Balentine. Taylor, who started 28 games as a freshman for the Bobcats, may be the best bet to continue that chain.

"I just thought (Taylor) had a really big upside and I thought we saw glimpses of it." Ohio coach Saul Phillips told the Athens Messenger last July after Taylor left the team. "I thought we could make real progress with him."

His current coach, who was a prolific Evansville transfer in his playing days, sees that potential too.

"Ryan Taylor has a high ceiling. He started as a freshman and is similar to D.J. in a lot of ways," Simmons said. "He’s a good shooter, good scorer and could have a big impact."

Brown and Taylor are a part of a perimeter group that should be the Aces’ strength. This will also include Blake Simmons (5.9 ppg, 2.9 apg) and Boo Gibson, an athletic guard who sat out last season with a knee injury but started 24 games in 2014-15. This group will be the initial focus in the post-Balentine/Mockevicious era.

"We’ll want to play fast," Simmons said. "We may not have the size last year’s team presented, but we’ll have speed and quickness and should be able to get out and create some opportunities."

Other losses within the Valley could create opportunities too. Wichita State’s grip on the conference gets looser with Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker gone. But Simmons isn’t counting out the Shockers -- or the rest of the league.

"Gregg [Marshall] does such a good job and [Wichita State] has great tradition," he said. "I’m not going to miss Baker and VanVleet, but they’ll still be the team to beat. Top to bottom, the league will be very, very competitive."

Evansville has been in the thick of that competition the past two years. It’ll take a combination of new faces and familiar faces in different roles to continue that next season.