A gifted core of seven returners blended in with nine talented newcomers has generated plenty of buzz to the University of Tennessee at Martin men’s basketball program under the direction of Heath Schroyer, who takes over the reins of the Skyhawks in 2014-15.
The background credentials speak for themselves with Schroyer, who was introduced as UT Martin’s ninth head coach in program history on March 20. He was named a top-20 assistant coach in back-to-back seasons at UNLV from 2012-14 and all six of his stops at a Division-I institution has culminated in either a conference championship or postseason play.
As the nation’s second-youngest Division-I head coach, Schroyer led Portland State University to its first-ever conference championship in 2004-05. He also guided the University of Wyoming to 19 victories and a postseason berth in 2008-09.
Making his return to head coaching after spending the last three seasons at UNLV, what Schroyer found at UT Martin was a group of returning players who were hungry for victories.
“All the returners have really tried to embrace what it is that we’re trying to do – I can’t speak more highly of them,” Schroyer said. “They really wanted a change and they understand that we need to do things differently so I’ve really talked to them about having a plan and being able to execute our plan on both sides of the ball.”
Schroyer spent a bulk of his offseason preparations trying to mold the Skyhawks into an exceptional defensive team. Last season, UT Martin ranked last amongst all Division-I teams with a .521 defensive field goal percentage. With that said, Schroyer has instilled a new defensive mindset into the Skyhawks during preseason practices, drills and repetitions.
“We are starting to understand our identity,” Schroyer said. “That is the biggest thing that we’ve tried to talk about since we started practice. We spent the fall developing an identity and understanding what we need to do to be successful. We have to have a defensive mindset – that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve tried to change since I’ve been here. Offensively, first and foremost, we have to take great shots. We’re just not going to run down the floor and take bad shots and not have structure. It’s very simple but there needs to be discipline and execution on both sides of the ball.”
This year’s version of the Skyhawks projects to feature a lot of depth and versatility.
“We have a lot of guys who can really play significant minutes, which I love,” Schroyer said. “We really don’t talk as much about starting games as we do about finishing games. We have proven guys at our level and a few are growing into playing at this level.”
Any casual observer of the UT Martin men’s basketball program for the past three seasons has noticed the skill of forward Myles Taylor. After all, the 6-7 standout joined the 1,000 career point club last season and has cemented his status as one of UT Martin’s all-time program greats. However, a majority of the Skyhawks’ faithful fans may have to do a double-take to recognize Taylor, who has shed over 40 pounds over the summer and is now listed at a svelte 235 pounds for his final collegiate campaign. He is expected to move to his natural position of power forward, which should free him from having to match up against the opposing team’s center.
Taylor averaged team-highs of 14.6 points and 6.3 rebounds last season, earning a Preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference nod from the league’s head coaches and sports information directors.
Allowing Taylor to slide into the 4 spot has been the emergence of 6-9, 280-pound junior center Arkeem Joseph. The Brooklyn, NY native earned all-region accolades at Monroe College last season after averaging 8.3 points and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 56 percent in only 15.8 minutes per game.
Also expected to see major minutes in the frontcourt are 6-7 sophomores Chandler Rowe and Javier Martinez. Rowe brought energy off the bench last season, playing in 28 contests while Martinez started in 13 games as a true freshman, shooting 62 percent from the floor.
Nick Detlev (defensive asset who is the tallest player in UT Martin history at 7-2) and Brandon Hitchman (versatile 6-9 player with exceptional outside shooting touch) will also vie for playing time in the post as freshmen.
The Skyhawk backcourt returns a pair of starters from last season in Marshun Newell and Dee Oldham. Newell was steady as the team’s point guard last season as a junior, ranking in the top-10 in the OVC in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4, ninth), steals (1.4 per game, ninth) and assists (3.5 per game, 10th) while also leading the team in scoring on four different occasions. Oldham developed into one of the team’s best players down the stretch last season as a sophomore, scoring in double-figures in 11 of the final 13 games (including 15 or more points in eight different games in that stretch).
Schroyer will also coach a familiar face in Deville Smith, who was granted an NCAA waiver to play immediately after averaging 9.7 points and 2.7 assists last season at UNLV. The speedy guard led the Runnin’ Rebels in scoring seven times in 2013-14 and was a four-star recruit coming out of Callaway High School in Jackson, Miss.
Another duo with a lengthy list of impressive accolades are Alex Anderson and Twymond Howard, who both were crowned junior college All-Americans last season. Anderson averaged 16.7 points, 4.6 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game as a point guard at Itawamba Community College while Howard – a 4-star wing recruit out of high school – nearly averaged a double-double (15.8 points, 9.8 rebounds per game) at Southwest Mississippi Community College.
Returners Terrence Durham (redshirted last year after two years at junior college powerhouse South Plains) and Khristian Taylor (26:13 assist-to-turnover ratio in 22 games last season) also project to see significant playing time in 2014-15, along with freshmen duo CJ Davis (deadeye shooter who averaged 24 points per game last year at Westwind Prep Academy in Arizona) and Richard Lee (three-star signee who averaged 19 points per game last year at Northeast High School in Florida) give the Skyhawks eight legitimate options in the backcourt.
UT Martin will be tested early, as eight of the first nine games on the schedule will be played on the road. The Skyhawks will take on power conference teams Marquette, Nebraska and Butler while also squaring off against a half-dozen teams (Nebraska, Illinois State, Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State, Belmont, Murray State) who reached the postseason last year.
All in all, UT Martin will face seven first-time opponents, teams from 11 different conferences and play in 10 different states in 2014-15.
“We have a lot of road games,” Schroyer said. “Obviously that’s challenging but the beauty of it is that we’re going to learn a lot from it because if you’re going to win a conference championship, you have to figure out how to win certain games on the road.”
Schroyer has inherited a Skyhawk team that has shown the willingness to get better every day in practice – a trait that has not gone unnoticed.
“Every day I ask our guys three things,” Schroyer said. “Are we getting better? Are we getting tougher? Are we getting hungrier? Those three things should be happening every day. If those things happen, the rest will take care of itself throughout the year.”
Schroyer knows that the sky is the limit for a UT Martin team that will boast just as much talent and athleticism as any team it lines up against this year.
“We’re trying to win every game,” Schroyer said. “And then to understand on top of that to continue to get better every game. You’re not going to win a championship in November, but you’re setting yourself up to continue to get better and hopefully win a championship in March. There’s a lot of growth that needs to happen, but we’re making our strides.”