BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - After the Union men's basketball team came painfully close to the Appalachian Athletic Conference tournament championship, second year head coach Sean Gillespie looks to use more than a few fresh faces to try to equal the Bulldogs' success of a season ago.
In 2009-10, Union finished with a 20-13 overall record and a 11-5 mark in the AAC. The Bulldogs shared a portion of the AAC championship for the first time since joining in the conference before the 2000-01 season. The title was also the first conference title for the Union program since the Bulldogs captured the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title during the 1971-72 season.
However, most of the key pieces from last year's squad have moved on, so Gillespie will look to insert a mixture of newcomers to try to equal the success of a season ago.
"We really like the group of guys that are here and in the program," said Gillespie. "They really do a good job of coming in and ‘punching' the clock, so to speak. They are a very blue collar group of guys.
"There are a lot of new faces here in the program with a lot of freshmen. Our coaching staff realized that we will need to be a bit patient here early on as it will take a bit of time to put all the pieces together."
At the point, Union will look to four players to share the responsibility of running the squad on the floor. Included in this group is one of the two returning players on the Bulldog roster in senior Shawn Hadley, who saw action in 32 of the 33 games last season. Hadley will share the point with three newcomers - sophomores Ryan Young and James Strange, along with senior Antonio Murry, who returns to the Union lineup after sitting out the entire 2009-10 season.
On the wing, new faces will once again look to pace the Bulldogs on the offensive end and contribute on the defensive end. Like at the point, the Bulldogs will mix things up at the position and just like the point, one player returns from the group that looks to play.
The returnee is junior Payton Ponzer, who played in all 33 games the Bulldogs played on the season in ‘09-10, while making 18 starts and averaging 9.7 points per game. The rest of the group is new to the Union squad. Included are sophomores Turrell Morris, Vinny Coleman and Brent Cork, along with freshman Madison Johnson and Stuart Stampert.
Inside the paint, the Bulldogs lost two players who were to be counted on to solidify the Bulldog interior offense and defense. Because of this, Gillespie and the Union coaching staff had to adjust on the fly and move players not normally accustomed to playing the post. However, the trio of junior Ian Davis, sophomore transfer Tyler Smothers and freshman Cody Miller are looking to step up in the position and looking to cause serious matchup problems for bigger opposing players throughout the season.
In the conference's preseason poll, Union was slated to finish fifth in the AAC, with Bryan picked by the conferences coaches as the league's preseason favorite. The position in the poll is a familiar one for the Bulldogs, as a season ago; they were slated to finish in a tie for fifth in the preseason list.
"The AAC is competitive as ever this year," said Gillespie. "Every program in the conference has improved through recruiting. You look at Bryan, Bluefield, TWC, and Milligan all having brought back many of their players from last year as well as Montreat, Reinhardt, and Virginia Intermont having improved through the recruiting process..
"We can't afford to take a night off in this league. The hardest part about this league is being able to win on the road. That is something that we see is the key to be successful in this conference."
The Bulldogs open the season on Nov. 2 with a matchup at Robsion Arena with Shawnee State, then host back-to-back home contests against teams from the state of Indiana in IU-East and Indiana Wesleyan. On Nov. 12 and 13, the Bulldogs host Southern Virginia and Alice Lloyd in the Union College Classic.
It is at this point where the Bulldogs will log plenty of time on charter buses, as the squad plays 14 games away from Robsion Arena in a row. During this period, the team will play in several classics at Sterling, Lincoln Memorial, Berea and Asbury College. The team will also entertain NCAA Division II foes LMU and Carson-Newmann and have two exhibition contests against NCAA Division I members Liberty on Dec. 28 and Louisiana Monroe n Jan 4.
The Bulldogs finally return home on Jan. 8, when AAC play convenes with a matchup with Reinhardt. Union opens the conference slate two days earlier at Virginia Intermont.
"Overall, our schedule is tough," said Gillespie. "We decided this year that we wanted to begin to measure ourselves against successful programs and to do that you have to compete against them. We understand the challenge ahead of us and are looking forward to the climb up the steep mountain."
Despite all the new faces on the roster, the expectations are still high for Gillespie, who look to build on a successful rookie season as head coach, in which his team came mere seconds away from winning the AAC tournament and qualifying the NAIA national tournament. Overall, Gillespie believes a tough schedule will challenge the Bulldogs and by the end of the season, Union will finish what they started last year.
"Everything that we do with our schedule and otherwise is to build towards the last week of February and the conference championship tournament," noted Gillespie. "Its been 42 years now since this program has been to the National Tournament and we are working towards seeing that streak end."