When the class of 2017 graduated in May, men’s basketball didn’t just lose five seniors—it lost more than a third of its total scoring and rebounding capacity.
This season, the Lions have welcomed seven new first-years onto their 18-man roster in an attempt to fill the gaping hole in both offensive and defensive talent. While the new crop of players has not yet been able to match the team’s former output, it has brought an opportunity to establish a new dynamic and sense of hope as the squad attempts to build a team for the future, even as the team has struggled to win early in the season.
“There’s a seriousness about them, there’s a competitiveness about them, [and] they’ve been extremely coachable,” head coach Jim Engles said. “Even though they’re freshmen, they expect to walk on the court and be able to compete with the upperclassmen.”
These lineup changes also follow the introduction of Engles’ new coaching staff in 2016, which created its own culture shift that is continuing to impact the squad.
Already this season, several of the first-years have contributed in the early non-conference matchups. First-year forward Jaron Faulds and first-year point guard Tai Bibbs have both consistently impressed so far, averaging 14.8 and 14.9 minutes per game, respectively.
Both Faulds and Bibbs noted the importance of their roles on the team as defensive contributors trying to efficiently support their offense.
“I think my role could be a defensive guy off the bench, so that’s my main focus when I go in, just try to be solid on defense,” Bibbs said. “I’m just trying to make the most of my opportunities every time I get on the court.”
In addition to his role as a defender, Faulds has been an even more important offensive contributor on the team in its last few matchups, scoring 17 points against Albany on Saturday. He then returned on Monday against Quinnipiac to contribute 12 points in 12 minutes of play off the bench, once again demonstrating his consistency in limited playing time.
While Faulds and his fellow first-years have stepped up with their offensive contributions, the Lions have still struggled as a team in their early nonconference games, having won just once in their first eight games this season.
The impact of the young players on the Light Blue offense cannot be understated, however. Last season, the Lions welcomed its most dominant contributor to the current squad, then-first-year guard Mike Smith. In 27 starts in as many appearances last season, Smith averaged 13.6 points per game—second only to Luke Petrasek, CC ’17, who now plays for the Charlotte Hornets’ NBA G-League affiliate team, the Greensboro Swarm.
Though he is just a sophomore, Smith has been a mentor to the new first-years. Bibbs noted that he and Smith had the opportunity to meet and practice together even before Bibbs stepped on campus this fall, as they are both from the Chicagoland area.
“[Smith has] a lot of innate leadership abilities,” Engles said. “When he steps on the court—just the way he handles himself—I think the guys know he’s really serious about what he’s trying to accomplish.”
Still, Faulds believes the senior guards Kyle Castlin and Nate Hickman have also done their part to carry the team through their leadership.
“Right off the bat, Kyle and Nate both took the team on their backs, and it helped us and kind of mentored all of us,” Faulds said. “Even off the court, they were leaders and helped us become better people and better players.”
And even before Faulds officially joined the team, he already knew his future team would allow him to thrive as a young player.
“On my recruiting visit, I just felt like the overall culture and camaraderie between the guys was there,” Faulds said. “I felt accepted right away, and I felt like I could play a role on the team and so could all the other freshmen.”
The younger players will have to step up once again, however, as Castlin is currently out with a deep bone bruise on his elbow and has not played since this November’s matchup against Villanova. The senior guard also spent last season watching from the sidelines after a toe surgery ended his junior year play.
Castlin was one of the few remaining players from former head coach Kyle Smith’s era at the helm. Engles and his crew took on a team fully recruited by Smith and faced the difficult task of starting from scratch with all 18 of their athletes. Despite growing pains, Engles does not believe building experience and teaching new players the system will be an insurmountable bulwark.
“Last year, honestly, I had 18 freshmen,” Engles said. “Everybody was trying to learn at the same pace. This year, the freshmen have really been able to learn at an accelerated rate because they’ve been able to use [the upperclassmen] as a visual example—I don’t have to teach everything like I did last year.”
Looking forward, Engles and his staff hope that their young team will continue to prove themselves ready to contribute as they grow into their roles on the team. And with the team’s 1-7 start, Engles has found himself mixing up rotations to try and find a solid rotation before Ancient Eight play begins in less than a month.
With 10 players of diverse talents in the first-year and sophomore classes combined, and with players like Faulds ready to emerge as a key contributor, the team is well-positioned to become a powerful force in years to come.
“We have every position that we need—we’re young, we’re all ready to learn, we all respond well to coach and to [the] guys getting on us when we need them to,” Bibbs said. “If we continue to do that, handle the pressure, and just continue to work hard, I think we’ll be really good.”