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Southern Utah has its best team in almost 20 years

A mixture of returners, transfers, and a healed shoulder have the Thunderbirds primed for a tournament run.

NCAA Basketball: Big Sky Conference Tournament: Eastern Washington vs Southern Utah Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Kids, please sit down. We need to talk to you about Southern Utah.

You’ve tried to ignore the Thunderbirds for a while now and there haven’t really been consequences. After all, they haven’t had a winning season since 2007 when they were part of the Mid-Continent Conference (now the Summit League). They haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2001, and over the past few years, they’ve been the sixth-most relevant Division I school in a state with six Division I schools.

It’s okay, kids. Now that SUU is about to be relevant, you can have concerns. You can ask questions. You can struggle with what this new, weird feeling means. Let me try to help.

Cameron Oluyitan leads an army of returners

Cameron Oluyitan was the only SUU player last year to earn all-conference honors, finding a spot on the all-Big Sky Third team and earning co-Newcomer of the Year. The Boise State transfer averaged 13.1 points per game and shot 36% from three. He led the team in scoring average, but bucket-getting isn’t even his biggest strength. Oluyitan is a lock-down defender, often drawing the opposing team’s best scorer as an assignment.

Around him, the Thunderbirds lost Brandon Better, but bring back guard Harrison Butler. The Mater Dei alum started 15 games as a freshman and led the team in rebounds per game with 6.5. He was also eighth in the conference in defensive rebound percentage (22.2). If he can improve from the line, Butler can bump up his 10.3 points per game — the rising sophomore shot 49% from the field last year and drew the sixth-most fouls per 40 minutes of anyone in the Big Sky. Not bad for a 6’5 guard.

Andre Adams, the former Arizona State Sun Devil, is back as a model of efficiency. His 57.5% field goal percentage was the eighth-best in school history, and his 60% mark from two ranked ninth-best in the nation.

Throw those three back into Todd Simon’s UNLV-inspired fast-paced offense and let them go to work. They helped SUU to a 17-17 record last year (the Thunderbirds’ most wins since 2001) and will be getting plenty more help in 2019-20.

Dwayne Morgan is back

It’s hard not to think about how much better last season could have been, had Dwayne Morgan not missed almost all of it with a shoulder injury. Luckily, the NCAA granted him a rare sixth year of eligibility, and if he can return to form, SUU will have another all-conference-caliber offensive weapon. The former five-star recruit can score and rebound in bunches, and in 2018, quickly became one of the team’s most-used players in-conference. He and Adams together should make for one of the Big Sky’s most dynamic front lines.

Transfer wave

With Morgan and the other returners alone, Simon has a Big Sky contender on his hands. Depending on what he could get out of his three transfers who all sat out last year, SUU could go from contender to favorite.

Jakolby Long (Iowa State), Daouda N’Diaye (Illinois State), and John Knight III (Utah State) are all eligible after sitting out last year.

Long never quite caught on with the Cyclones, save for a 17-point outburst against Tulsa as a sophomore, but was an ESPN Top 100 recruit out of high school and held offers from a host of other Power 5 schools. He’s a 6’5 shooting guard who has now had a year to learn on the sidelines.

N’Diaye is a 7-footer who Simon heralded as a rim protector with length. He also noted that N’Diaye is a true athlete and will be a great fit in an uptempo system. He played sparingly for the Redbirds but did manage do average four-and-four in his final season in Normal.

Then there’s Knight, whose eligibility is still somewhat of a question. He transferred midseason last year, so if all goes according to plan, he should be eligible for conference play in 2020. If that happens, SUU gets a guard who averaged just under eight a game over 10 contests for a team that wound up in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. He’ll have three years of eligibility remaining and, at worst, should provide great depth — something the Thunderbirds badly needed last year.

SUU’s schedule is loaded with challenges to start 2019-20, so we should learn pretty quickly if this team is for real. The Thunderbirds have a buy game with Nebraska on the docket and will be a mainland team in the Maui Invitational. Their Maui games will be road contests against BYU and UCLA as well as a possible matchup with East Tennessee State, a top-10 preseason team in The Other Top 25.