NATCHITOCHES, La. -- You can count on one hand the number of college basketball teams with more newcomers than Northwestern State. Yet, the Demons have a veteran core, featuring one of the game’s oldest and most productive players, who is not among the three starters back from last season.
Blending the eight newcomers, including six freshmen, with the experienced Demons is exactly what NSU’s wave substitution system can accomplish. Mike McConathy, beginning his 19th year as head coach, has seen in preseason practice and competition that subbing five-in and five-out at a time is going to be back in vogue this winter at Prather Coliseum.
“This will be more like what we’ve been accustomed to playing, being able to rotate players and competing at a high, high energy level. That’s crucial in our system,” he said two days before the season opener Friday night at Texas. “We, coaches and players, have to understand that everybody has a different role that adjusts game to game, depending on matchups, to get more production.
“The intensity level has been very encouraging. We are showing willingness to do what the team needs.
“Our culture is really in a good place. The guys are coming in hungry, and the guys who are here have high character and great desire. That’s helped the building process. It’s a lot more enjoyable to go to practice when the spirit is good, the kids are competing and they really get after it,” said McConathy. “You want it to be fun for them. That’s most important.”
Combining the influx of new players with the return of completely committed veterans has NSU trending very positively.
“We’re playing a lot harder, that’s the biggest thing. If you play hard, the other things come,” said McConathy, who has managed nearly 1,100 games in 34 seasons of college coaching. “We are rotating defensively, creating chaos, and if we will continue to develop in that area, we can become a pretty good team.”
McConathy’s system has always pointed the Demons toward playing their best in February and March. Injuries in the last two years shortened the rotation and impeded that development.
The cornerstone figure may be junior center Ishmael Lane. The catalysts will be senior guards Devonte Hall and Jalan West, and the “glue guy,” as McConathy says, is senior swingman Iziahiah Sweeney.
“We’ve had some really good interior play in preseason with (newcomers) Larry Owens, Brandon Hutton, Darian Dixon bringing their talents to combine with Ishmael Lane, who has really taken steps forward in his development,” said McConathy. “Ish broke out down the stretch last season and he’s raised the level of his game since.”
Lane (6-8, 250) emerged in the final weeks of his sophomore year among the better interior players in the Southland Conference. In the Demons’ last eight games, he averaged 14.9 points, shooting 62 percent from the floor and 77 percent at the free throw line, posting a 32-point game and two more 20-point outings.
Hall and West were a guard tandem eight years ago when nearby Bossier High School won a state title. Hall was a freshman, West was a senior for those Bearkats. Now due to a pair of lost seasons due to knee surgeries for West, they find themselves as classmates, ready for one last run toward postseason success.
West (5-11) is NSU’s career assists leader (614) and 3-pointers king (212), is third in steals (219, 45 shy of the record) and sixth all-time in scoring (1,592 points) in school history. After scoring 20 per game and leading the country in assists (7.7 pg) as a junior, he has missed the last two seasons after knee surgeries. Such is the regard for West’s flair and love for the game, and his accomplishments, that in its preseason edition, Sports Illustrated wrote “Jalan West’s return … is good for college basketball.”
Hall (6-3) shouldered much of the burden with West sidelined. He’s been a double-digit scorer who has ranked among national assists leaders each of the past two years, 14th in his sophomore year when he issued 6.3 per game. With his Bossier buddy back, and adding freshmen Czar Perry and C.J. Jones in the backcourt mix, Hall is slotted to work on the wing, where he was a dynamic force as a prep senior and has flashed all-conference caliber play as a Demon.
Sweeney (6-3) averaged 10.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in Southland games, while giving McConathy a versatile defensive option able to guard up and down.
Asking the veteran Demons to hone in on which newcomers will make the biggest contributions is fruitless. They’re unable to narrow the field, praising each of the eight for different attributes. JUCO transfer swingman DeAndre’ Love and freshman Caleb Starks showed in the preseason scrimmages and exhibition game abilities to make impact even without posting noteworthy numbers on a box score.
The Demons go from zero to 60 in a hurry, playing their first six games in 14 days, four in the first week. McConathy’s wave system affords NSU the chance to stay relatively fresh even while getting quality work in during practices, vital for the newcomers.
“We’ve got eight newborn horses trying to find their way,” said the coach, who credited the quote to his son, former Demon Logan McConathy.
“When you’re hitting a busy stretch, as we do right out of the gate, in a short period of time, you still have a learning process going on,” he said. “You have to get reps in at practice to improve, but you don’t want to wear people out. We have a system which gives us the best opportunity to limit the physical wear and tear.”
Instead, the system wears on opponents, particularly in the stretch runs at the end of each half, when it’s in gear. McConathy believes as West settles into a comfort zone in his return, the other veterans continue to evolve and the newcomers develop, the 2017-18 Demons can progressively become a contender in a hotly-competitive conference race.