One of the emerging trends in the Southern Conference hardwood over the past few seasons is quality big men transferring in and making big impacts. None of these more apparent than at Western Carolina and East Tennessee State.
The programs are led by two of the SoCon’s four African-American head basketball coaches with second-year head coaches Justin Gray at Western Carolina and Desmond Oliver at East Tennessee State.
Both coaches bolstered this area in the offseason. Oliver lost three top post players during last season as Charlie Weber suffered a career-ending injury, Silas Adheke returned to Nigeria to help his family financially and Vonnie Patterson left the team after only 19 games.
Of those who remained, Ty Brewer and Matt Nunez entered the transfer portal. Kordell Charles, who has battled several injuries, is not available again this season. Therefore, Jaden Seymour was the only post player who played reputable minutes to be back on the court.
Oliver used his SEC background to build his frontcourt back up. He procured forward Josh Taylor from Georgia and Tennessee’s Brock Jancek. He also added Jalen Haynes from Virginia Tech. Haynes is cast in the same mold of a couple of former Bucs that will resonate with its passionate fanbase such as Jerald Fields (2001-04) and Dillion Sneed (2004-08).
Meanwhile, at Western Carolina, Gray also saw several players depart from his program. Joe Petrakis, a 6-foot-10-inch transfer from Kansas State, decided to leave after only one season in Cullowhee, N.C. Nick Robinson also had just one season with the Catamounts after transferring from Valparaiso.
Gray went out and found himself an outstanding talent from Morehead State in Tyzhaun Claude. He has been an early locker room leader for the Catamounts this season and the primary low-post producer.
The redshirt junior is averaging 14.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. He has scored in double figures in all but one contest and has registered six double-doubles. He averaged 9.5 PPG and shot 60% from the field as a freshman at MSU. He then played nine games over the next two seasons.
In the Catamounts’ 79-67 win over consensus league favorite Furman back on New Year’s Eve, Claude scored just seven points but affected the game in other way.
“Tyzhaun was a great teammate [in the game against Furman],” Gray said. “He showed some maturity. He looked for how he could affect the game, and since he couldn’t do it from an offensive standpoint being in foul trouble, he did it in other ways like cheering on his teammates and was a great encourager in big moments. Then when he was on the floor, he played with a fearless mentality and was physical without being undisciplined.”
Claude exuded the kind of confidence and leadership that you might expect out of the kind of player that Gray looked for from the portal. The forward spoke with the same humility and maturity that I remember former Catamount Nick Robinson exemplifying.
“Every night’s not gonna be your night,” Claude said after the Furman game. “I had to figure that out, and I told my teammates ‘y’all put in the work every day too, and I don’t have to score 15 for us to win. I’ll come out here and get offensive rebounds and set screens for y’all, and y’all make the shots.”
In his most recent game, Claude posted 17 points and an impressive 17 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season. The 17 boards were a career high and the most by a Catamount since Andre Gault snagged 21 boards on Jan. 7, 1988.
One glance at the SoCon’s current regular-season statistics reveals how well Claude has done in his first season as a Catamount. He ranks sixth in the SoCon in scoring average (14.9 PPG) and is also second in the league in rebounding (8.5 RPG).
Meanwhile, in Johnson City, Tenn., Haynes is getting the first meaningful minutes of his college basketball career, putting in work for a Bucs team that has been shorthanded in the frontcourt for a large majority of the non-conference. With injuries to both Jancek and Taylor, Haynes has had to learn how to be a big leader for the Bucs in the locker room and on the floor.
“This league is different but strong,” Haynes said following ETSU’s 70-56 loss to Furman on Jan. 7. “I am coming from situation at Virginia Tech where I wasn’t playing to one here where I am playing. So, it’s different, and I am still getting accustomed to that alone. I have to get used to being able to play and learn how to win games.”
Haynes is currently ETSU’s second-leading scorer, averaging 12.0 PPG, while also averaging 5.5 RPG. Haynes is also shooting 55.6% from the field this season, which ranks second on the team and sixth overall in the league. His role for ETSU is a little different than that of Claude at Western Carolina due in large part because of injuries. He’s been a reliable option in the paint for the Bucs when he can stay out of foul trouble.
Haynes posted what was a breakout performance earlier this season against Louisiana—a team that was picked to win the Sun Belt in the preseason. In a matchup against Louisiana’s 6-foot-11-inch, 225-pound NBA hopeful Jordan Brown, Haynes looked like the more polished talent, displaying great hands and awareness around the basket.
With NBA scouts inside the Harrah’s Cherokee Center for the championship game of the Asheville Classic back in November, Haynes shone brightest with 23 points and seven rebounds. He went 7-for-9 from the field and was a perfect 9-for-9 from the charity stripe. The sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., posted a 21-point effort against Georgia. He then finished with 14 in a narrow three-point loss at LSU to close out non-conference play.
“As a leader I just have to make sure in the locker room we stayed focused on the next game,” Haynes said. “It can be tough sometimes for people mentally to make for a quick turnaround but the great thing is just thinking about getting back out there and playing the next game and having a chance to get another opportunity.”