Southern Utah’s men’s basketball team opens the second season of the Nick Robinson era Saturday when the Thunderbirds host the University of La Verne at 5:00 p.m. in the Centrum Arena in their only pre-season exhibition game. The game opens a double-header, with the second contest featuring SUU’s women’s team against Western State.

SUU and La Verne played the first-ever game in the Centrum back in 1985. The Thunderbirds opened their new building on a happy note as the Bob Schermerhorn-coached club came away with an 83-67 win in that one. SUU has gone on to win 75.2 percent of its games in the arena (258-85).

The Thunderbirds, who are coming off a sixth-place finish in their first season in the Big Sky Conference, enter the season with six returning letter-winners and 10 newcomers, including six scholarship players and four walk-ons. SUU went 8-12 in the Big Sky and 11-20 overall last season.

La Verne is an NCAA Division III program which competes in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The Leopards finished 9-7 and tied for fourth in the SCIAC last season when they went 11-14 overall.

“We’re looking forward to the chance to compete against somebody else besides ourselves,” Coach Robinson said. “La Verne has a good program in place and we look forward to having the students and the community here in the Centrum and showing them what we’re all about after a month of practice.”

Practice Schedule: The Thunderbirds work out daily, beginning at 3:00 p.m. Practices will be held in both the Centrum Arena and the Multi-Purpose Center gym until volleyball season concludes, at which time the team will practice exclusively in the Centrum.

Media Availability: All practices will be open to the public and to the media. Players and coaches will be available on Tuesdays prior to practice at 2:30 p.m.

Radio: All SUU men’s basketball games will be broadcast live by Power 91 KSUU (91.1 FM) as well as on the internet at www.power91radio.com. Art Challis is in his 40th season as the Thunderbirds’ basketball play-by-play voice. Dr. Challis is joined on home and selected road broadcasts by former SUU standout Dean O’Driscoll.

On The Internet: All of Southern Utah’s regular-season home games and Big Sky road games will be available on Watch Big Sky, at www.bigskytv.org. Saturday's game will not be available, however. Audio of SUU games is available at the Thunderbirds’ website at www.suutbirds.com or at www.power91radio.com.

Live Stats: Live stats of all of SUU’s home games will be available at www.suutbirds.com.

Video Highlights: Video highlights of the Thunderbirds’ home games will be available to accredited media outlets via SUU’s FTP site. For information on obtaining those highlights contact SUU Director of Athletic Media Relations Neil Gardner.

The Coaches

SUU Head Coach Nick Robinson (Stanford, 2005), a 2013 finalist for the Joe B. Hall Award which honors the top first-year coach in the nation, is entering his second season at SUU and his second season overall as a head coach. In his first year at SUU Coach Robinson led the Thunderbirds to a sixth-place finish in the Big Sky Conference, earning a BSC tournament berth in the school’s first season in the league. SUU posted an 11-20 overall record, including an 8-12 mark in Big Sky games last year. Two Thunderbirds, seniors Jackson Stevenett and Damon Heuir, earned all-conference honors last season.  Coach Robinson came to Southern Utah from LSU, where he spent three seasons on the staff. Prior to his time at LSU Robinson spent a season at William Jewell College and two seasons on the staff at his alma mater, Stanford. During his time as an assistant coach, Robinson helped guide his teams to a combined record of 87-47 and four post-season appearances, including two NCAA, one NIT and one NAIA Division I national tournaments.

Robinson is assisted by Todd Okeson (Nevada, 2005), Drew Allen (Southern Utah, 2010) and Chad Bell (Nevada, 2006), while Yahosh Bonner (Northern Colorado, 2010) will serve as Director of Basketball Operations. Okeson and Allen were with the Thunderbirds last season while Bell and Bonner are in their first seasons with the program.

Richard Reed (La Verne, 1999) is in his seventh season as head coach of the Leopard program. He brings an overall record of 57-94 into Saturday’s game. Prior to taking over the Leopard program Coach Reed spent two seasons as an assistant at Big Sky programs, including one at Sacramento State and one at Northern Colorado.

Affiliations: Southern Utah is in its second season as a member of the Big Sky Conference. All of SUU’s sports except gymnastics and men’s golf compete in the Big Sky. Gymnastics is affiliated with the first-year Mountain Rim Conference while men’s golf competes in the American Sky Conference. La Verne is a member of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

Captains: This year’s captains are seniors Jayson Cheesman and Jaren Jeffery and junior Chris Nsenki.

Pre-Conference Schedule: The Thunderbirds will play nine official games before they open Big Sky play on Jan. 2 at North Dakota but that schedule is heavy with road contests as the team will play in the Centrum just three times before the conference opener. After Saturday’s game the Thunderbirds will host Arizona Christian on Nov. 8 in the official season-opener, then travel to Utah State (Nov. 12) and Cal (Nov. 18) before hosting UC Riverside on Nov. 23. SUU then hits the road for games at Portland (Dec. 1) and Cal State Northridge (Dec. 3) before returning home for the only game in the Centrum during December, a match-up with UNLV on Dec. 14. The team will then close out 2013 and its non-conference slate with a two-game trip to southern California, where it will face San Diego State on Dec. 18 and San Diego on Dec. 21.

About the Leopards: La Verne lost the top four scorers from last season’s team but returns senior point guard Ronn See, who led the team with 2.6 assists per game, was second on the team with 5.1 rebounds per game and averaged 5.6 points in 22 starts. Junior forward Alonzo Young, who averaged 5.8 ppg last season, is the top returning scorer and second-leading returning rebounder after pulling down 3.1 boards per game in 2012-13. The Leopards averaged 64.8 points per game on 42.6 percent shooting last year while allowing 66.8 ppg at a 44.7 percent rate.

About the Thunderbirds:

Southern Utah has six returning letter-winners, six scholarship newcomers and four walk-ons on the roster.

The returning lettermen include two starters, senior front-court players Jayson Cheesman and Jaren Jeffery; as well as junior center Cal Hanks and junior guard Chris Nsenki and sophomore guards A.J. Hess and Drake Thomas.

Cheesman started 30 games last season when he led the team with 60 blocks – the second-highest single-season total in school history – and averaged 6.8 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. Jeffery started 29 games and averaged 3.5 points and 3.3 rebounds.

Hess started the final six games of the 2012-13 season and finished with averages of 5.8 points and 2.6 rebounds per game but while he was in the starting lineup those averages improved to 9.3 points and 5.0 boards.

Hanks blocked 36 shots while averaging 3.6 points and 3.0 rebounds while Nsenki averaged 2.3 points and 1.2 assists. Both came off the bench in every game. Thomas appeared in 19 games and averaged 0.1 points and 0.4 rebounds per game.

“Our six returners bring needed experience as well as leadership to our team,” Robinson noted. “We have three perimeter players and three big men and we’ll rely on them to continue the culture we established last year.”

The newcomers include forward Casey Oliverson, wings McKay Anderson, Juwan Major and Race Parsons, and point guards Trey Kennedy and John Marshall. All but Oliverson, a sophomore, are freshmen.

“We’ve got six incoming scholarship players,” Robinson said. “Each one of them has brought energy and excitement since they came to campus and that’s what I want. They’ve all made a solid adjustment to college life at Southern Utah and we expect them to be hungry to improve every day.”

Anderson was a two-time all-CIF second-team selection at La Verne (Calif.) Lutheran HS where he averaged 10.5 points last season. Oliverson, a graduate of Smithfield’s Sky View HS, comes to SUU from Salt Lake Community College where he averaged 8.2 points and 4.9 rebounds last season on the Bruins’ Scenic West Conference championship team.

Kennedy and Major were both Las Vegas, Nev. preps, with Kennedy coming to SUU from Bishop Gorman High and Major from Las Vegas High. Kennedy averaged 12.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists last year while Major averaged 14.2, 5.1 and 3.0 en route to being named his region’s co-MVP last season.

Marshall spent last season at Westwind Prep in Phoenix, Ariz., where he averaged 12.1 points and 4.7 assists on a team that went 25-11 playing a nation-wide schedule, while Parsons was a three-time all-stater and two-time Utah 2A MVP at South Sevier HS where he averaged 27 points and 8.8 rebounds per game as a senior.

The 2013-14 walk-ons include Peter Barrus, Eric Rippetoe (who spent a redshirt season at SUU in 2010-11 before playing the last two seasons at Western Wyoming JC), Taylor Jenson and Thomas Tebbs.

Thunderbird Notes: 

• Including walk-ons there are two seniors, three juniors, four sophomores and nine freshmen on the 2013-14 Thunderbird squad.

• SUU received the Team Academic Excellence Award from the National Association of Basketball Coaches for posting a cumulative GPA of 3.2 in 2012-13. Four members of last year’s squad were named to the NABC’s Honors Court as well, including current T-Bird Jaren Jeffery as well as Jordan Johnson, Matt Gardner and Wade Collie. To be eligible for the Honors Court players must have posted a cumulative grade point average of 3.20 or higher at the end of the 2012-13 school year, must have attained junior or senior academic status and been a member of the varsity basketball squad, and must have been at their current institution for at least one full academic year.

• SUU lost a pair of second-team all-Big Sky performers from last season’s squad: forward Jackson Stevenett and guard Damon Heuir. Stevenett – who was named SUU’s Male Athlete of the Year in 2013 – was the league’s third-leading scorer, leading free throw shooter and was eighth on the rebounding list while Heuir was fourth in the conference in scoring last season.

Jayson Cheesman was third in the Big Sky with 1.9 blocked shots per game (60 total) and was 10th in the conference with 6.0 rebounds per game.

Cal Hanks ranked ninth in the Sky with an average of 1.2 blocks in just 13.5 minutes per game last year.

• As a team the Thunderbirds led the Big Sky in offensive rebounds with 12.1 per game last season. The ‘Birds were also second in the BSC in rebounding margin, defensive rebounds and blocked shots last year. SUU averaged three more rebounds per game than their opponents, pulled down 25.5 defensive boards and blocked an average of five shots per game.

• Seven teams qualify for the Big Sky tournament, which will be hosted by the regular-season champion, March 13-15.

• SUU is in its 51st season as a four-year institution, its 26th at the NCAA Division I level. Prior to joining the NCAA Division I ranks the University spent two seasons at the Division II level and 23 as a member of the NAIA.