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New-look Abilene Christian looks to continue the pressure

The Wildcats’ hounding defense will try and take flight with a new but familiar voice on the sidelines.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Abilene Christian at Texas Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY Sports

Things are getting easier for Abilene Christian, at least in some ways. The Wildcats have a new coach, new faces on the roster and new conference, and with that move from the Southland to the WAC comes a few less long bus rides through the never-ending expanse that can be Texas.

“There was quite a bit of travel in the Southland, the bonus is we get to fly a little bit more where we used to have to bus most of those trips,” said coach Brette Tanner. “The travel might actually get a little better.”

If Tanner has his way, the Wildcats won’t be making anything easier on their new conference.

The first-year coach takes over for Joe Golding, who departed for UTEP following ACU’s throttling of Texas in their historic NCAA Tournament first round upset of the Longhorns. He’s not, however, one of the unknowns within the program. Tanner has been an assistant on Golding’s staff since ACU made its Division I debut in 2013-14, helping build the Wildcats into a Southland force whose tenacious defensive brand hit a high note in forcing Texas into 23 turnovers last March.

Tanner was the obvious choice for the players when Golding left, with senior guard Reggie Miller tweeting that he and his teammates would not take part in workouts until Tanner was elevated to the top spot. The ACU administration was on the same page. Tanner was announced as the Wildcats’ new head coach just one day after Golding was himself announced at UTEP.

“I think Coach Tanner was so big of a voice in the previous years I’ve been here, it only made sense that he got the head coaching job,” Miller said at WAC media days. “He’s a deserving head coach, so it wasn’t going to big change for us. We’re used to his voice, familiar with his voice, familiar with how he does things, so I felt like it’d be the best jump for us.”

Golding called Tanner his first and most important hire when the Wildcats transitioned to Div. I, and he brings continuity to a program that used a distinct identity to ascend the Southland pecking order. They bring a reputation for a tremendously disruptive defense with them to the WAC, and one that has produced astronomical numbers in recent years. The Wildcats forced turnovers at the highest rate in the country in 2020-21, leaving opponents flustered after coughing up the ball on over a quarter of their possessions (26.5%).

In total, they’ve finished in the top 29 in turnover percentage in the past five seasons and haven’t finished lower than 97th since 2015. That’s led to ACU forcing 19 or more turnovers 63 times over that span, a remarkable figure that is third most over that period, trailing only West Virginia and a fellow purple-clad, havoc-causing team headed from the Southland to the WAC in Stephen F. Austin.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Abilene Christian at UCLA
Reggie Miller has been a key cog in the Wildcats’ elite defense.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

That stingy defensive pedigree wasn’t overlooked in the WAC’s preseason awards. The coaches (5th) and media (4th) both projected ACU to compete toward at the upper tier of their new home, but Tanner will have to do so with some roster turnover.

The good news for the first-year coach is that much of the back court that suffocated the Longhorns’ talented guards is back, including the team’s top three minute getters from last season in Miller, Coryon Mason and Damien Daniels. All three received all-league second team nods from either the media or coaches, with Miller and Daniels immediately projecting as two of the best perimeter defenders in the league and Mason (10.6 ppg in 2020-21) likely slotting in as the team’s go-to scorer.

The front court, however, is more of a work in progress.

Big man Kolton Kohl graduated, removing ACU’s leading scorer (11.9 ppg) and most efficient option on the offensive side of the ball. Third-leading scorer Joe Pleasant (10.5 ppg) transferred to Wichita State, while Clay Gayman (8.2 ppg) transferred down a level — to Div. II Drury University — in search of a more central role.

“It’s been awhile since we had new players,” Tanner said during WAC media days. “We haven’t had to deal with that for awhile. [Mason and Miller] have done a great job of getting those guys in and building relationships and doing what we do. It’s coming along pretty well.”

That leaves junior Airion Simmons — whose biggest offensive contributions came in transition in 2020-21 — as the sole returning forward from last year’s rotation. Tanner will likely look for immediate contributions from a pair of JuCo bigs in Yuot Gai and Furaha Cadeaux de Dieu. But with the hounding duo of Miller and Daniels at the tip of the spear, and a familiar voice on the sidelines, there’s little doubt ACU will yet again be frustrating the opposition.

Tanner has liked what he’s seen so far.

“It’s just how connected these guys are, that’s been our go to the last few years,” he said. “If you watched these guys play, you could really see how connected these players are and we want that to continue and we believe that we’re there, and when we tip off November 9 these guys will be just as connected as they’ve been in the past. We’re going to play super hard, we’re going to fly around like crazy and these guys and these guys will be connected. If they can do that than we’ll win more than we lose.”