Southern Utah's men's basketball team begins both the Nick Robinson and the Big Sky eras Friday night when the Thunderbirds take on No. 21 Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash.
Robinson takes over this season following the retirement of Roger Reid at the end of the 2011-12 campaign, while the University has moved to the Big Sky after 15 seasons as a member of the Summit League/Mid-Continent Conference.
Both teams will be playing their official season-openers Friday night. The Bulldogs rolled to a 93-45 exhibition win over Northwest Nazarene last Saturday in their only exhibition game. SUU opted not to play exhibitions this year.
The Game: Southern Utah (0-0/0-0) at Gonzaga (0-0/0-0), 6:00 p.m. (Pacific), McCarthey Athletic Center (6,000).
The Series: SUU and Gonzaga have met twice in the past and each team has come away with a win on its home court. The Zags prevailed 77-60 in the first meeting, in Spokane during the 1995-96 season, then the Thunderbirds came out on top of a 71-47 decision in Cedar City in the 1996-97 season-opener.
TV: Friday's game will be televised live on ROOT SPORTS Northwest and on tape-delay by ROOT SPORTS Rocky Mountain at 11:00 p.m. (Mountain).
Radio: All of Southern Utah men's basketball games will be broadcast live by KSUU (91.1 FM) as well as on the internet at www.suu.edu/ksuu. Art Challis will be 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: Video web-streaming coverage of Friday's game will be available on Gonzaga's website at http://www.gozags.com. All of Southern Utah's home games and Big Sky road games will be available on Big Sky TV, at www.bigskytv.org. Audio of SUU games is available at the Thunderbirds' website at www.suutbirds.com or at www.suu.edu/ksuu.
Live Stats: Live stats of Saturday's game will be available on the Gonzaga website at http://www.gozags.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.
Practice Schedule: The practice schedule calls for the Thunderbirds to work out daily at 3:15 p.m. Practices will be held in the Centrum Arena, the Multi-Purpose Center and the Sorensen Physical Education Building until the end of volleyball season, depending upon each team's schedule. Following the conclusion of volleyball season practices will be held in the Centrum Arena.
Media Availability: This week the SUU coaches and players will be available to the media on Wednesday, at 2:45 p.m. in the Centrum arena. Going forward the schedule will be TBA until conference play begins in earnest, at which time players and coaches will be available on Tuesdays prior to practice at 2:45 p.m.
Captains: This year's captains are seniors Jackson Stevenett and Tyson Koehler.
Head Coach Nick Robinson (Stanford, 2005) is entering his first season at SUU and his first season as a head coach. 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 Jared Barrett (Eastern Oregon, 1996), Todd Okeson (Nevada, 2005) and Drew Allen (Southern Utah, 2010).
Affiliations: Southern Utah is in its first 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 an affiliate member of the WAC while men's golf competes in the American Sky Conference. Gonzaga is a member of the West Coast Conference.
The Thunderbirds will play eight non-conference games before opening Big Sky play at home against North Dakota on Dec. 17. Three of those games will be at home, three will be true road contests, and two will be neutral court match-ups.
Next week the Thunderbirds travel to Reno, Nev., to compete at Nevada's World Vision Classic. SUU will square off against Wisconsin Green Bay and Cal State Fullerton on Friday and Saturday nights, then will finish the tournament against the host Wolf Pack on Sunday afternoon.
The home season opens Nov. 21 when the Thunderbirds host Carroll College in the Centrum arena on Thanksgiving Eve. Following that game its back on the road for a game at TCU against one of Coach Robinson's mentors, Trent Johnson, who is in his first season at the helm of the Horned Frog program.
The T-Birds return home to host three straight in the Centrum following the TCU match-up. SUU opens December against San Diego Christian on Dec. 1, hosts San Diego on Dec. 4, then opens conference play against UND on Dec. 17 before hitting the road for its final pre-season non-conference game, at Denver on Dec. 21.
SUU has 10 letter-winners - including two starters - and one redshirt returning from last year's squad.
Forward Jackson Stevenett and guard Damon Heuir are the returning starters, while Wade Collie, Jaren Jeffery, Jordan Jonson, Tyson Koehler, Chris Nsenki, Julian Scott Cal Hanks and Matt Gardner also return. John Renfro is also back after spending last season as a redshirt.
Stevenett earned second-team all-Summit League recognition last year after leading the Thunderbirds in scoring and rebounding. He then went on to earn a spot on the Summit League's all-tournament team following a 26-point, nine-rebound effort in the team's first round win over Oakland. Stevenett averaged 14.1 points and 5.7 rebounds last season while shooting at a 51.2 rate from the field and .758 from the free throw line.
Heuir also capped his season with a stellar performance at the Summit League tourney, scoring 23 points and dishing out a team-high five assists in the win over Oakland, then leading the team with 14 points and three assists against South Dakota State in the semi-finals after Stevenett suffered a sprained ankle early in that game. For the season Heuir averaged 10.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
Collie played in all but one game with four starts and averaged 4.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. He also played a key role in the Thunderbirds' Summit League tourney win over Oakland, hitting all five of his shots and both of his free throw to finish with 14 points in the 84-82 win.
Johnson, along with Stevenett, is one of two returning players who played in all 31 of the team's games last year. The defensive specialist and the team's sixth man averaged 2.3 points and 2.1 rebounds per game and was second on the squad with 28 steals.
Jeffery, Koehler and Nsenki all contributed off the bench as well, with Jeffery and Nsenki appearing in 23 games and Koehler in 22. Jeffery averaged 1.2 ppg, while Nsenki, the team's primary back-up point guard, averaged 0.3 ppg and Koehler chipped in 2.4 points and 1.2 rebounds per game while leading the team in shooting percentage at .611.
Scott appeared in 15 games and averaged 2.5 points and 1.3 rebounds while Hanks, who played in five games, averaged 3.0 points and 0.8 rebounds, and Gardner appeared in two games and averaged 3.0 points and 1.0 rebounds in 2011-12.
The Thunderbirds have added four newcomers to the squad: center Jayson Cheesman, G/F A.J. Hess and guards Zach Ghormley and Drake Thomas.
Cheesman was an all-Scenic West Athletic Conference performer last season at Salt Lake Community College, while Hess was an all-Arizona selection as well as Arizona's small schools player of the year last year. Ghormley and Thomas were teammates on back-to-back Texas state championship squads at Grace Preparatory Academy. Ghormley was an all-district and second-team all-state selection while Thomas was an all-district honoree for the Lions last year.
- SUU has nine lettermen, one squad member and one redshirt returning from last season's team that finished 8-10 (14-17 overall) and in sixth place in the Summit League.
- Five seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and four freshmen make up the 2012-13 Thunderbird squad.
- Senior Jackson Stevenett was a second-team all-Summit League honoree last season and he also earned a spot on the five-player Summit League all-tournament team.
- SUU advanced to the Summit League tournament as the number six seed last year, then upset third-seeded Oakland (84-82) in the tournament's first round before falling to eventual tourney champion South Dakota State (63-47) in the semi-finals.
- Nick Robinson is the eighth head men's basketball coach in SUU's 50-year history as a four-year institution.
- Nevada's World Vision Classic will be the fourth in-season tournament for the Thunderbirds in as many seasons. Last year SUU competed at San Diego State's Basketball Travelers Classic, in 2010 SUU traveled to the Great Alaska Shootout and in 2009 the team was in Hawai'i for the Rainbow Classic.
- Southern Utah will play 14 home games this season, including 10 Big Sky Conference contests and one in the BracketBusters tournament. The 10 conference match-ups are the most ever in a season for SUU, a far cry from the four the team had in 1993-94 and 1994-95 when it was a member of the five-team American West Conference and there were just four home conference dates. The last several years SUU has played nine conference games per season in the Centrum.
- SUU will play non-conference games at Gonzaga, at the World Vision Classic in Reno, Nev. (UW Green Bay, CS Fullerton and Nevada), at TCU and at Denver this season.
- SUU and the University of North Dakota are in their first seasons in the Big Sky, making it an 11-team conference. The Thunderbirds had been members of the Summit League (ne. Mid-Continent Conference) for the past 15 seasons before joining the BSC. As members of the 10-team Summit League the Thunderbird men's basketball team qualified for the conference's eight-team post-season tournament 14 of 15 seasons, missing in 2009-10 when they finished ninth.
- Seven teams qualify for the Big Sky tournament, which will be hosted by the regular-season champion, March 14-16.
- SUU is in its 50th season as a four-year institution, its 25th 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.
Scouting the Bulldogs: Gonzaga has won 11 straight West Coast Conference titles and if the league's head coaches are right the Bulldogs will make it 12 this season. With four pre-season all-conference honorees the Zags received seven first place votes and 63 points in the conference's pre-season poll of its coaches. Senior forward Elias Harris, junior center Sam Dower, and sophomore guards Gary Bell, Jr. and Kevin Pangos were all tabbed for the pre-season all-league squad. Pangos led the Zags in scoring (13.6 ppg) and assists (3.6) last year in earning WCC Newcomer of the Year and all-WCC honors, while Harris led Gonzaga in rebounding (and is the league's leading returning rebounder) with 8.5 per game and was the team's second-leading scorer, at 13.1 ppg. Bell averaged 10.4 ppg with the team's top 3-point percentage (.477) to earn a spot on the WCC all-freshman team last year, while Dower came off the bench to average 8.3 points and 3.7 boards per game. Gonzaga, which averaged 73.8 points per game while holding opponents to 63.2 in 2011-12, returns eight lettermen from last year's 26-7 squad that beat West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament (77-54) before falling to final-four participant Ohio State (73-66) in the NCAA second round.
The 2012-13 Thunderbirds
#3 Damon Heuir
6-2, 200, Sr, G, Townsville, Australia/Ignatius Park College
Career Highs: 33 points vs. Bryant (11/13/11); 9 rebounds vs. North Dakota St. (1/7/12), at Western Illinois (1/14/12); 8 assists vs. U of the Southwest (11/19/09)
Started all but two games last year. Led team with 33 3-pointers on a team-high 104 attempts. Averaged 10.8 points per game, third-highest on the team, also dished out 3.1 assists and pulled down 3.1 rebounds per game. Led or co-led team in scoring five times, in rebounds three times, in assists 10 times, in steals nine time and in blocks twice in 2011-12. Part-time starter the previous two seasons.
#5 Zach Ghormley
6-4, 184, Fr, G/F, Garland, Texas/Grace Preparatory Academy
Helped Coach Ray Forsett's Lions to back-to-back TAPPS 4-A state titles in 2011 and 2012, and a No. 2 ranking in Texas from Max Preps in 2012. This past season he was a second-team all-state selection and a first-team all-district honoree after averaging 11.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.4 blocks and a steal per game.
#10 Matt Gardner
6-3, 180, So, G, Spanish Fork, Utah/Spanish Fork HS
Career Highs: 4 points vs. So. Virginia, 2 rebounds at San Diego State
Appeared in two games in 2011-12, averaged three points and 1.0 rebound per contest.
#12 Chris Nsenki
6-2, 180, So, G, Kansas City., Mo./Park Hill HS
Career Highs: 2 points vs. UC Davis, San Diego State; 2 rebounds at Troy, vs. South Dakota St.; 1 assist six times
Finished season with scoring, assists and rebounding averages of 0.7 per game last year when he came off the bench in 23 games.
#14 Drake Thomas
6-0, 165, Fr, G, Ovilla, Texas/Grace Preparatory Academy
Helped lead Coach Ray Forsett's Lions to a 27-4 record and the TAPPS 4-A state championship as well as a No. 4 national rank from Max Preps in 2012. During his senior campaign he averaged 5.7 points, 7.3 assists and 2.2 rebounds to earn second-team all-district recognition.
#21 Jackson Stevenett
6-4, 185, Sr, F, Kaysville, Utah/Davis HS
Career Highs: 26 points at South Dakota (12/28/11), vs. Oakland (3/4/12); 10 rebounds vs. UMKC (1/26/12); 5 assists vs. So. Virginia (11/23/11) at Weber State (12/10/11)
Earned second-team all-Summit League honors and all-Summit League Tournament team honors in 2011-12 when he led team in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 14.1 points and 5.7 boards per game. Started every game, led or co-led team in rebounding 14 times and in scoring 11 times and blocked a team-high 22 shots. Led team in scoring at 16.2 ppg in Summit League games, scored in double-figures in 21 of the last 24 games.
#22 John Renfro
6-6, 185, RFr, F, Fairbanks, Alaska/West Valley HS
Spent last season as a redshirt. Averaged 18 points, seven rebounds, three assists and a block per game his senior season for Coach Tong Chiu's West Valley HS Wolfpack.
#25 Jordan Johnson
6-3, 175, Sr, G, Delta, Utah/Eastern Wyoming
Career Highs: 6 points vs. North Dakota State; 5 rebounds vs. Troy, vs. IPFW, vs. South Dakota; 5 assists vs. South Dakota
Came off the bench in all 31 games in 2011-12. Finished the season second on the team in steals (28) and fourth in offensive rebounds (0.8 rpg). Led or co-led team in steals 10 times, led team in assists once.
#32 Wade Collie
6-6, 200, Jr, G/F, Las Vegas, Nevada/Wallace State
Career Highs: 14 points vs. Oakland, 10 rebounds vs. UC Davis; 4 assists vs. Bryant, at Oral Roberts
Had four starts and came off the bench in 26 games last season. Team's third-leading returning scorer. Averaged 4.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game. Posted a double-double in his first NCAA game with 11 points and 10 rebounds vs. UC Davis when he came off the bench to play 27 minutes. Led team in steals seven times and in rebounding three times.
#33 Tyson Koehler
6-7, 250, Sr, F/C, Salt Lake City, Utah/Grayson County CC
Career Highs: 12 points at Oakland (12/2/10); 6 rebounds at Cal St. Bakersfield (12/17/10), vs. Weber State (12/11/10), vs. Panhandle St. (12/14/11); 4 assists at IPFW (12/4/10)
Appeared in 22 games, all off the bench last year, averaged 2.4 points and 1.2 rebounds per game. Appeared in 27 games with five starts in 2010-11 when he averaged 3.7 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.
#34 Cal Hanks
6-11, 235, So, C, Logan, Utah/Mountain Crest HS
Career Highs: 6 points at North Dakota State, 2 rebounds at San Diego State
Appeared in five games last year when he averaged 3.0 points and 1.0 rebounds per contest.
#35 A.J. Hess
6-6, 190, Fr, F./G, Phoenix, Ariz./Phoenix Country Day
Averaged 19.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.8 blocked shots, 2.4 steals and 2.4 assists last year in leading Phoenix Country Day to 31 wins, a region title and their first state championship.
#42 Jaren Jeffery
6-8, 205, Jr, F/C, Delta, Utah/Delta HS
Career Highs: 12 points, 8 rebounds at South Dakota State (2/12/09); 3 assists vs. Bryant (11/13/11)
Played in 23 games, all coming off the bench, after returning in the summer of 2011 from an LDS church mission. Averaged 1.2 points and 0.8 rebounds per game.
#44 Julian Scott
6-8, 260, Sr, F, Marysville, California/Yuba College
Career Highs: 9 points at South Dakota;, 3 rebounds vs. So. Virginia, at South Dakota; 1 assist vs. So. Virginia, UC Davis
Came off the bench in 15 games. Averaged 2.5 points and 1.3 rebounds per contest.
#50 Jayson Cheesman
6-11, 250, Jr, C, Orem, Utah/Salt Lake Community College
An honorable mention all-Region 18 performer for Coach Todd Phillips at Salt Lake CC last year, Cheesman led the Bruins in rebounding and blocks, averaging 5.5 boards and 1.4 rejections per contest. He also chipped in 7.9 points per game while connecting on 50.0 percent of his shots from the field in 2011-12.