When the Sam Houston men’s basketball team reported for their first team meeting of the 2014 fall semester, head coach Jason Hooten immediately knew there was no need for a pep talk.
A look at the players’ faces told him everyone knew what needed to be done.
“We were one game away from going to the NCAA tournament last year but lost to Stephen F. Austin in the finals,” Hooten said. “These guys came back this fall focused from day one at the task in hand. They didn’t need to have some ‘rah-rah’ speech in the locker room. They have a goal and are ready to go out and get the job done.”
Nine lettermen including four starters return from last year’s team that rolled up 24 victories (one short of the school record for wins in an NCAA Division I season). That squad finished third in the regular season and won two playoff games to reach the finals at the Southland tournament in Katy.
After the loss to the Jacks in the finals, the Kats earned an invitation to the CollegeInsider.Com post-season event. Sam Houston defeated Alabama State in the first round, the program’s first NCAA post-season victory in 27 years of Division I play.
San Diego narrowly defeated the Kats in the second round.
“All those wins and reaching the conference championship game have given our guys confidence,” Hooten said. “Obviously, when you can continue to play in post-season, it’s a great experience. The players now know what it takes to get there. They’re determined to achieve our goals.”
Pursuit of that goal begins Friday at 12 noon when Sam Houston plays host to the Austin College Kangeroos in the opening game of the 2014-15 season.
Hooten and his staff are excited about the way the team has performed in preseason practice.
“We have a lot of guys returning,” Hooten said. “It was a much easier transition for the guys coming into preseason and understanding what we as coaches want. Practices have been better. There is more of a sense of urgency this year.”
Returning starters for the Bearkats include preseason All-Southland selections Jabari Peters and Kaheem Ransom. Both are seniors who averaged scoring in double figures as junior college transfers to lead Sam Houston last season.
Senior Michael Holyfield and junior Paul Baxter also were starters. Baxter, a 6-1 guard, ranked among the top 20 in four Southland Conference statistics categories in 2013-14. Holyfield, a 6-11 center, was the most improved player on last year’s team and looks to be an imposing factor in the middle for the Kats.
DeMarcus Gatlin, a 6-4 senior guard, who has missed the last season-and-a-half with a knee injury, returns. He started all 54 games in 2011 and 2012 before his injury and will be a team leader.
Marquel McKinney, a 6-2 senior, is a hard-nosed player who contributes at multiple positions and 6-2 sophomore Dakarai Henderson gives the Kats an outside shooting threat off the bench.
Aurimas Majauskas, a 6-8 sophomore post player, brings offense inside. Jesse Lopez, a 6-6 forward who red-shirted as a true freshman, also looks to help underneath the boards.
“Coming into last year, no one really knew how good this team was going to be,” Hooten said. “Now we have some high expectations. We had a great off-season and have gotten much stronger in the weight room. Our returning players understand that you have to play your hardest on both ends of the floor every day in Division I.”
Sam Houston lost four seniors from last year’s squad who all contributed. Hooten has gone both to the junior college and high school ranks to bring in new talent.
Marcus Burwell, a 6-5 big man and Sean Goodwin a 6-7 power forward have joined the Bearkats from Wallace State Community College in Alabama and Butler Community College in Kansas, respectively.
Jamal Williams, a 6-4 guard from Episcopal High School in Houston, and Albert Almanza, a 6-5 forward from Austin Saint Stephens, both look to contribute as freshmen. Cody Mason, a 6-7 freshman from The Woodlands also looks to contribute. Josh Delaney, a 6-0 point guard from Killeen probably will red-shirt during the 2015 season.
Sam Houston has been tabbed to finish third behind SFA and A&M-Corpus Christi in the 2015 Southland Conference head coaches preseason poll.
“Considering Sam Houston has finished among the top three teams in the Southland Conference eight of the past 10 years, that’s a pretty safe place to pick us,” Hooten said. “But this team is determined to do better.”
The Bearkats’ pre-conference schedule certainly will help them prepare for a tough conference race.
Following Friday afternoon’s opener with the Roos, Sam Houston departs on a four-game road swing that takes the Kats to face UNLV in Las Vegas and South Dakota, Fairfield and Wofford in tournament play in Connecticut in an eight-day span.
Basketball tickets are on sale now on www.gobearkats.com or at the SHSU athletic ticket office in the Ron Mafrige Field House. The ticket office telephone number is (936) 294-1729.