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Sam Houston State turns to JuCo influx to keep competitive streak alive

Can a win-now class help the Bearkats take the next step?

NCAA Basketball: Sam Houston State at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Houston State’s year ended on a down note in 2017-18.

The Bearkats got lit up for 99 points in a season-ending loss at Northern Colorado, which included a 40-point explosion from Bears point guard Andre Spight. It was an uncharacteristic outing from a SHSU team that spent the year keeping opposing offenses in check, and generally winning games.

But the sour ending happened in a characteristic place: the CIT. It was the fourth time in the past five years that the Bearkats played in that tournament, and the deepest they had advanced (the semifinals). Unsurprisingly, some solid regular season work underpins all that postseason action. Over that stretch, SHSU has averaged 22 wins per season and gone 62-28 in Southland Conference play.

Those numbers pop, yet mid-major buzz on a national scale has eluded ninth-year coach Jason Hooten and the Bearkats.

Like his predecessor — Bob Marlin — Hooten has drummed up a consistent program in Huntsville. He’s generally fielded quality defensive teams that have rebounded well, even when they’re undersized like they were last season. This has led to top-five or better finishes in the league standings in all but one of his nine seasons in charge.

Yet during that solid run, SHSU has watched rival Stephen F. Austin explode into a mid-major power and make four NCAA Tournament appearances. Alongside that emergence, two obvious holes have developed in the Hooten-era resume: no regular season league titles, and no NCAA Tournament appearances. The last time the Bearkats accomplished both was in 2010, Marlin’s last year at SHSU.

Roster turnover makes changing that a challenge next season.

The Bearkats lose their most productive player, forward Christopher Galbreath Jr. (14.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG), as well as guard Jamal Williams (25.1 MPG, 8.5 PPG) to graduation. Starting point guard John Dewey III (10.1 PPG, 4.4 APG) transferred, as did forward Abrian Edwards (21.4 MPG). That leaves plenty of holes to fill for SHSU to remain competitive.

Hooten does return some experience in the backcourt, with seniors Marcus Harris (25.0 MPG, 9.4 PPG), Josh Delaney (8.1 PPG, 40.5% 3FG) and Cameron Delaney (15.5 MPG). Other than that, however, SHSU’s returning group is largely unproven.

To combat that, Hooten doubled down on experience in his incoming recruiting class. The Bearkats added four players from junior college programs, along with a pair of Texas prep guards. It’s the older players that should have every chance to earn minutes on a depleted roster.

Forwards Kai Mitchell (Hutchinson Community College) and R.J. Smith (Butler Community College) may well slide into the starting lineup right away. The Bearkats were the Southland’s best offensive rebounding team last season, mainly due to Galbreath and Williams. Hooten is looking to Smith — who spent a year at Oral Roberts — to pitch in in that area immediately.

“We are extremely excited about having RJ for three years,” Hooten said. “His versatility at 6-5, 220, is something we were really needing with the loss of Chris (Galbreath) and Jamal (Williams). RJ will also bring some added rebounding and toughness to the team.”

Zaqwuan Matthews (Cape Fear Community College) and Chad Bowie (Kilgore College) will add backcourt depth, with Bowie especially a candidate to take over primary point guard duties. That same chance may also be given to incoming freshman Xavier Bryant, who was rated as a top-five Texas point guard by Hooten sounds especially excited about Bryant.

“He is a very talented young man that has a great feel, plays with tremendous pace and can both score and distribute,” Hooten said. “We feel like he has a chance to be one of the better guards we’ve had here.”

However the rotation plays out, Hooten’s track record suggests he’ll be able to roll out another competitive team. Whether it’s also a team capable of taking that next step to the NCAA Tournament will determine whether the Bearkats finally get national attention.