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The Other Top 25: No. 21 UNC Greensboro Spartans

The Spartans have one of the best players in mid-major basketball. Who will step up alongside him?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 04 UNC Greensboro at Wofford Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2019-20 Record: 23-9, 13-5 SoCon (3rd)

Key Returning Players: Isaiah Miller (G, Sr.), Keyshaun Langley (G, R-So.), Kobe Langley (G, R-So.), Kaleb Hunter (G, Jr.), Michael Huiett Jr. (G, Jr.), Mohammed Abdulsalam (F, Jr.), Angelo Allegri (F, Jr.), Bas Leyte (F, So.), Arnas AdomavIcius (G/F, RS-So.), Dericko Williams (F, RS-Fr), Khyre Thompson (F, So)

Key Losses: James Dickey, Malik Massey, Kyrin Galloway

Key Newcomers: Hayden Koval (C, Sr/Central Arkansas), A.J. McGinnis (G, Fr.), Jarrett Hensley (G, Fr.)

With a bunch of turnover and a new head coach at East Tennessee State, Wes Miller’s UNC Greensboro club is primed for a run at the top of the Southern Conference.

Since the start of the 2015-16 season, the Spartans have posted a record of 120-52, which is the best five-year run in program history. Just like conference rival Furman, the window of opportunity is now. Like Furman’s Bob Richey, UNCG’s Wes Miller is likely going to be a candidate for bigger jobs at the end of the season, and it will also be the final time around for Isaiah Miller, who is one of the best players to come through the SoCon in a long time.

The Spartans have continued their defensive trend over the past few seasons, and that has a lot to do with having the reigning two-time league defensive player of the year in Miller. He is on pace to set the SoCon’s all-time career steals record, sitting just 94 short of Keith Jennings’ all-time mark.

That would be quite a feat for the talented, athletic senior guard. Miller has 241 thefts in his outstanding career, including 104 takeaways in his sophomore season, giving him the second-best in a single season in SoCon history.

In terms of scoring defense, the Spartans finished tied for first in the SoCon last season, surrendering just 63.1 points per game. UNCG forced opponents to turn the ball over on 24.5% of their possessions last season.

While defense has been the mantra with Miller leading the way, there will be a massive hole to be filled in the middle of that vaunted matchup zone defense the Spartans utilize so effectively, with the graduation of rim protector James Dickey. Filling that void may have already been answered earlier this summer.

3 Things To Watch:

A rim protector

Hayden Koval (12.2 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.1 BPG) has the coaches through-the-roof excited headed into the season. He is a graduate transfer, who comes to UNCG from Central Arkansas, where he left as the school’s all-time blocks leader. The 7-1, 220-pound center will be eligible immediately.

The native of Prosper, TX, started all 31 games for Central Arkansas last season. He averaged 32.7 minutes per game and averaged 12.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 3.1 blocks.

Koval will be the perfect elixir to replace Dickey as a rim-protector in the paint for the Spartans this season, and has perhaps even a better skill-set. Koval ended up leading the Southland Conference in blocked shots last season with 95.

Finding an outside shooting threat

One of the things that Isaiah Miller has not done particularly well through his career at UNCG is shoot from the perimeter — something that has been a problem for the team as a whole. Miller shot just 23% from three-point land last season and, for his career, is shooting just 24.7%.

Keyshaun Langley and Angelo Allegri are two shooters that are capable of giving Wes Miller’s club a “zone buster” ability, as the duo figures to be among the better perimeter shooters in the SoCon this winter.

During the 2019-20 season, Allegri was second on the team in three-pointers made to only Kyrin Galloway. He finished the season connecting on 35.5% (49-of-138) from three-point range, and in his two seasons for UNCG, Allegri is shoots 34.1%.

Like Miller, Langley is one of the quickest players off the dribble in the Southern Conference. Langley saw action in all 32 games for the Spartans last season, and he was the team’s best shooter from long range at 38.2%.

Supporting scoring roles

The question as to whether or not UNCG can go back to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in four years will have little to do with Miller and a lot to do with his supporting cast — guys like Kaleb Hunter.

He was the second-leading scorer for the Spartans last season after battling some injuries early on. Two years ago, Hunter was a SoCon All-Freshman selection, and an argument could be made that Hunter was snubbed as an All-SoCon performer.

Hunter comes off a 2019-20 season which saw him battle injuries but still start 24 out of 27 games. In the Spartans’ loss to Kansas, Hunter turned in one of his best performances, posting 17 points and 12 rebounds.

The X-Factor

Dericko Williams

The Spartans’ early exit in the SoCon Tournament left a bitter taste in their mouths. While Hayden Koval figures to be a key addition to the front court, the real x-factor is a player we haven’t mentioned. His name is Dericko Williams. Had he been eligible last season, the Spartans would have had a whole different scoring dynamic in the paint.

The 6-8, 220-pound sophomore is a player that could make an immediate impact. His inclusion in the lineup will give the Spartans both athleticism and strength in the paint. He will be a candidate to start right away. Williams has the potential to be a player with Kyle Hines-like skills as a rebounder and scoring presence in the paint. For a quick refresher course, Hines is widely considered the best Spartan to ever grace the hardwood in a UNCG uniform. That’s some pretty high praise and expectation for the young Williams.

Williams attended Winston Salem Prep and played at York Prep in South Carolina in his junior season, where he averaged a double-double. He was the No. 10 ranked player in the state of North Carolina for the 2019 recruiting class, and picked UNCG among an impressive list of offers, which included Kansas, Arkansas, Houston, Kansas State and North Carolina.