Nestled away in the scenic valley of the Appalachian Mountains sits an underrated basketball program. Through one season and a ton of strong additions in the transfer portal, a winning family culture already exists at Western Carolina.
“I think we’ll be the best team in the conference,” Western Carolina transfer forward Tyzhaun Claude said. “I didn’t come here to be second or third. We’re working hard every day to get to that point.”
The Catamounts finished 11-21 last season with some interesting results. They battled Georgia and Wake Forest into the final minutes, upset SoCon champion Chattanooga at the beginning of conference play, and improved in the win column with a brand-new coach.
Justin Gray was announced as the head coach on April 13, 2021. As a coach, he spent two atypical COVID-riddled seasons on Pat Kelsey’s staff at Winthrop before earning his first head coaching job. As a player, he spent 13 pro seasons overseas in 13 different countries.
Something that helped him early is a motto that most people learn: “treat others the way you want to be treated,” better known as the “Golden Rule.”
“Treat the freshman not like a freshman, like they’re your brothers from day one,” Gray said. “Treat people how they wanted to be treated. We took a trip to Athletes in Action in Ohio. We were there for 3-4 days and did a ton of team bonding stuff: ropes course and different games, opening up and talking. I truly believe a team in this day-and-age college basketball with so much movement and the portal, it’s the teams that grow together the quickest.”
They did a lot of that over the summer, embracing the beautiful nature that is around them all while team bonding.
If you’ve ever stopped through Cullowhee, N.C., you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s smack dab in the middle of the mountains with some awesome lakes nearby.
“It looks fake, almost like a backdrop,” Gray said.
Over the summer, the team went out fly-fishing and more at Lake Glenville.
Although they didn’t always catch much, they would go back to some more team bonding time.
Some players on the team “think they’re chefs”. The coaching staff would buy the ingredients and the team would spend the night together, eating something that someone made. Nothing bonds people better than some food, right?
Other times, they would go back to Coach Gray’s house for a pool party, a cookout, team Olympics or a softball game. Just a pure summer of fun.
“The basketball isn’t just who they are,” Gray said. “We’re really trying to build something that’s bigger than that. Like any other family in the summer, you want to remember a family vacation. I want them to leave 2022 summer with memories. Trying to make sure they’re having a good time, but they also are enjoying it, and it’s time spent with your brothers.”
But with the culture, you need the players on the court too. Gray hit the transfer portal hard this offseason, and the talent on his roster is immense.
It begins with Claude, a forward from Morehead State. Claude was one of the best freshmen in the country during the early part of his freshman season, picking up a double-double in his collegiate debut against Samford and again later that month at Missouri.
Injuries began to plague him during his sophomore season, and he was never the same at Morehead.
The kid that overtook his role during his absence was Johni Broome. Broome is now at Auburn and was one of the best players in all mid-major basketball last season.
That’s Ty’s ‘brother” as he described him to me. He is so happy to see his best friend’s success.
“When I was injured, I enjoyed watching a lot of film or watching my friends play on TV, and my teammates play on TV,” Claude said. “I felt like him having success like that made me feel better. I gave him a lot of pointers or talked to him about a lot of things, and he would listen. Just to see him go out there and do that, it made me happy and proud. That’s my brother.”
That’s an ultimate teammate and a player who could be an amazing team leader for the Catamounts this season.
Claude also feels like he’s back to playing to his full potential.
For comparison's sake, he averaged 9.5 points and 6.4 rebounds in his freshman season. After the injury, Claude averaged only 3.4 points and 1.8 rebounds. If he can get back to his freshman form, the SoCon needs to watch out.
“Last year, I didn’t feel 100 percent, but now I feel completely back to normal,” Claude said. “It felt the most like family. When I came on my visit, I felt like I was a part of the team.”
Other members of that family are kids from the Carolinas, a big emphasis on what Gray is building. He has someone on his staff whose only role is to sit there and alert him of who went into the portal over the summer.
Iowa State transfer Tre Jackson and Winthrop transfer Russell Jones were two of the other big names that they added. Both of them are Carolina kids and went to Blythewood High in Columbia, S.C. They’re expected to be key members of a backcourt that includes Cam Bacote and Vonterius Woolbright, the Catamounts' top two returners.
Jones played for Gray before, so he knows his coaching style. He contributed 5.4 points in 16.4 minutes per game and can dish the rock too. In a game against High Point in the 2021 Big South Tournament, he had 10 assists. Those big assist games only continued.
Jackson started 19 games at a Big 12 school while averaging 4.2 points per game in just under 20 minutes per game. He was a part of the program’s turnaround from two wins to a Sweet 16.
But both joined the same program because they bought into what was happening. It’s more than just basketball.
“The biggest deal is getting those guys to understand that I care about them personally more than what they can do for me or for the program on the court,” Gray said. “Once they realize how much I really really truly do care about them. Then they go and run through a brick wall for me.”
The Catamounts open their season on Nov. 7 at Georgia and play at Maryland three days later.