By Chris Mackowiak
The Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) men’s basketball championship has come down to the final two seconds each of the last two seasons. The teams involved were Christopher Newport University (CNU) and Salisbury, and the two squads look like the CAC teams to beat once again. CNU won the conference title on their home court last season after defeating the Sea Gulls 68-67 in overtime.
Now in their second season under head coach Andrew Sachs, Salisbury looks to win back the title after last winning it in 2014. Last season, Salisbury put together a strong campaign finishing with a record of 21-7 (13-5 CAC) and reaching the conference title game once again. Three of the team’s seven losses came against CNU, a team that reached the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III Final Four.
While Salisbury brings back a lot of talent at multiple positions, the Sea Gulls do lose most of their stars at the guard positions. Guards Rocky Harris and Justin May depart, alongside guard Adrien Straughn who will join the SU coaching staff later this season. Straughn returns to play in the fall semester games with his one semester of eligibility remaining.
The three guards combined for 24.6 points per game (PPG) and 37.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. From the front court, SU loses forward Kyle Savercool, who started in all contests a year ago averaging 7.1 PPG and 4.9 rebounds per game (RPG).
“Losing Straughn, May, and Rocky [Harris] was a tough loss for us. Honestly, out of all the guys, it’s May. May made us better when we were on the bench. He made us better. You live with his mistakes, but he made us better. If you were to play a pickup game, he’s the first guy you’re choosing,” Sachs said.
“We have to make up for what we lost. We had great shooters. Most of our seniors were great shooters; Adrien, Rocky, May. But, we have to just fill those positions and execute the game plan every day,” senior forward Gordon Jeter said.
With so many losses across the back court, returning players must step up into larger roles. Senior Justin Witmer, formerly at the forward position, will slide over to occupy one of the guard slots in the starting lineup. Witmer brings a little more height and experience to the guard position after finishing second on the team in scoring (10.6 PPG) last season in 27 starts.
“I think just having another wing will be a great benefit for rebounding. Chad [Barcikowski] is a great shooter also, so just like Rocky spread the floor, I’ll have Wyatt [Smith] and Jeter down low to help me out,” Witmer said.
Witmer’s presence will bring consistent veteran experience and ability to the lineup at the No. 2 guard spot. A major question mark headed into the season is at point guard with new transferees or freshmen taking over the lead position.
At point guard, the Sea Gulls are centering in on a true freshman. Freshman point guard Alex Leder has impressed Sachs through the recruiting process through high school and now finds himself as a key piece in the Salisbury contingent.
Leder is an experienced point guard and has seen much playing time against top high school talent. Playing at the Bullis School just outside Washington D.C., the freshman is highly regarded as a future star in the conference. Sachs has hopes that Leder will grow and mature quickly as the season goes on. If his maturation is quicker than expected, Leder, who has shined in recent practices and scrimmages, can lead Salisbury off the bounce to an improved season.
The consistent area for Salisbury will by far be the front court. Jeter returns to the squad after leading the team in scoring (13.7 PPG) and rebounding (6.8 RPG) a season ago. With senior forward Wyatt Smith out in 2015-16,Jeter had to play more at the center position away from his more recent power forward ability. Now with Smith back, he can get back to what he does best: posting up and shooting outside.
“I think I had to get better on the perimeter defensively and offensively, making open shots and just being confident in my shot. I didn’t really shoot the ball a lot my first year, but I felt like it was something that I had to earn, and I had to get better at it,” Jeter said.
Smith returns from a season-ending injury last season. While he will have to work off some rust after being off the court for nine months, Smith is ready for a big return as one of the top centers in the conference. Last season, Salisbury may have been a ‘Wyatt Smith’ away from a Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) championship and a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament run.
“I would say I bring a level of tenacity on the boards. Definitely the grittiness, the get-down-and-dirty to really put your heart out on the line every time. Just trying to get more guys open and taking care of the ball and getting rebounds,” Smith said.
Junior forward Chad Barcikowski also returns to the fold in the No. 3 slot. In only about 12 minutes per game last season, Barcikowski averaged 6.1 PPG and 37.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He will get more opportunities to shoot the three in the No. 3 spot of the starting lineup.
With ideally four athletic and versatile forwards playing within the starting lineup of five, Sachs’ team should improve in rebounding, a category that hurt the Sea Gulls in key situations last season.
“Having size is definitely a plus, and when you’re going up against big guys, it’s tough to match up and play with them for 40 minutes. I think the fact that we have speed with our size is really going to be the deciding factor for us,” Smith said.
Other new freshmen that will add in to the depth inside are forward Lucas Martin and center Nick Gittings. Sachs says that Martin put together a really good preseason after being named as Second Team All-State in Virginia for his senior season. Gittings has valuable experience from his time playing at Good Counsel (Md.) in one of the toughest schedules in Maryland/DC high school basketball.
With mentors like Witmer, Jeter and Smith, the new freshmen are sure to soak up information and tactics quickly in practice.
“It just feels good knowing that I can be a part of someone else getting better. Just helping others grow because at some point they’re gonna be in my position,” Jeter said. A more veteran lineup will aid the Sea Gulls early on in a very tough schedule, while also training the freshman to the rigors of the CAC.
In the non-conference, Salisbury hosts the bi-annual Optimist Tournament on Nov. 18 and 19 and also will travel to Las Vegas for the annual D3hoops.com Classic. Both events will allow Salisbury to gain some national exposure while also boosting their resume.
“The reason we made the NCAA Tournament last year is, 100 percent after we made the [CAC] championship game, our 7-0 out of conference record against really good teams,” Sachs said.
Salisbury will travel to Virginia Wesleyan on Nov. 22. The Marlins are ranked in the Top-15 of some polls. The big matchup circled on the calendar is a home game against Christopher Newport on Dec. 17.
“We have so much respect [for CNU]. It’s just a battle between us,” Jeter said. The Sea Gulls will have to wait a few weeks into the season for the CAC championship battle, but they will start the season on Nov. 15 at 7:30 pm against Goucher College.