Men's Basketball Begins Practice

September 24, 2013
By SUU Strategic Communication

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A.J. Hess (left) and Jayson Cheesman return for the Thunderbirds this season
A.J. Hess (left) and Jayson Cheesman return for the Thunderbirds this season
Courtesy: SUU Strategic Communications

Southern Utah’s men’s basketball team begins preparation for its second season in the Big Sky Conference and the second year of the Nick Robinson era this weekend when the Thunderbirds open full-team workouts.

Robinson, who took over the SUU program in the spring of 2012, will conduct three workouts with the team over the weekend, one on Friday and two on Saturday.

“We’re very excited to get going as a full team again,” Robinson noted. “Everyone is looking forward to the weekend as we begin working together as a team.”

Robinson said his goals in the early going will be to establish a defensive identity and the offense as well as build confidence.

“For us the goal during the first 10 practices will be to establish our defensive identity as well as being solid in executing our transition and half-court offenses,” he pointed out. “We also want to build confidence individually as well as within the team.”

Practice Schedule: The practice schedule calls for the Thunderbirds to work out in the Centrum Arena Friday at 6:15 a.m. and Saturday at 10:00 a.m. with shooting groups, then again Saturday at 3:15 p.m. Beginning Monday the team will practice daily at 3:00 p.m. Practices will be held in both the Centrum Arena and the Multi-Purpose Center gym until volleyball season concludes.

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

The Coaches: 

Head Coach Nick Robinson (Stanford, 2005) is entering his second season at SUU and his second season as a head coach.

In his first season as a head 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).

Radio: All Southern Utah men’s basketball games will be broadcast live by KSUU (91.1 FM) as well as on the internet at 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.

The Players:

Southern Utah will have six returning letter-winners, six scholarship newcomers and four walk-ons on the roster when they begin workouts this weekend.

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 forwards and we’ll rely on them to continue the culture we established last year.”

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

“We’ve got six incoming scholarship players Each one of them has brought energy and excitement since they came to campus and that’s what I want,” Robinson said. “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 LaVerne (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 Jensen and Thomas Tebbs.

The Schedule: 

Fourteen home games – including match-ups against UNLV and UC Riverside – highlight the schedule, while the road slate includes contests at Utah State, California, San Diego State and a pair of West Coast Conference teams. The Thunderbirds will also face each Big Sky Conference opponent both at home and on the road.

The T-Birds open the quest for their first-ever Big Sky championship at North Dakota on Jan. 2 but warm up for the conference schedule with an ambitious non-conference slate of games, beginning with an exhibition contest in Cedar City against LaVerne University on Nov. 2.

Following the match-up with LaVerne the T-Birds host Arizona Christian on Nov. 8, in the first official game of the season before traveling to Utah State (Nov. 12) and Cal (Nov. 18).

The first Division I home game comes Nov. 23 when the Thunderbirds host UC Riverside in the Centrum, then they hit the road for a pair of match-ups, at Portland on Dec. 1 and Cal State Northridge on Dec. 3.

The team then takes a short hiatus for final examinations before returning to the court Dec. 14 with a home game against UNLV. Following the game against the Rebels the ‘Birds take to the road to wrap up the non-conference portion of the schedule with games at San Diego State (Dec. 18) and San Diego (Dec. 21).

After a 10-day holiday break the team departs on New Year’s Day for the Big Sky opener at UND on Jan. 2, followed by a game at Northern Colorado on Jan. 4.

The Big Sky home-opener is Saturday, Jan. 11 when Sacramento State visits the Centrum, with Northern Arizona coming to town the following Monday.

Defending Big Sky champion Montana visits the Centrum Jan. 30, while Montana State is in town Feb. 1.

A game with in-state rival Weber State on Feb. 13 begins the longest home-stretch of the season, four games, which includes match-ups with Idaho State (Feb. 15), Portland State (Feb. 20) and Eastern Washington (Feb. 22).

The regular-season wraps up with a pair of double-headers with the SUU women’s team. Both T-Bird squads will host Northern Colorado on March 6, and North Dakota on March 8.

The Big Sky tournament, which is hosted by the regular-season champion, tips off March 13.