Returners: Albert Almanza, Christopher Galbreath Jr., Justin Van Pelt
Newcomers: Abrian Edwards, Josh Boutte, Bubba Furlong, Manny Gatkek, Freddy Bitondo, Chidozie Ndu
HUNTSVILLE – Losing the top low-post offensive threat in the league is not an easy thing to replace, but the 2017-18 Bearkats will have plenty of frontcourt options to choose from to fill that void this season.
Coach Jason Hooten’s squad said farewell to graduating big man Aurimas Majauskas at the end of last season, one of three 1,000-point scorers on last season’s roster. The all-conference performer, along with fellow senior Torry Butler gave the Kats a formidable 1-2 punch in the middle, but last season’s X-factor always seemed to be junior Christopher Galbreath Jr.
The lengthy Galbreath came to the Kats with two years of eligibility and was an instant spark off the bench for the majority of the season before starting seven of the final eight games of the year. He averaged 10.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, both tops among players returning this year and six double-doubles.
“I think he’ll have a great year,” Hoote said. “His attitude has continually gotten better and like most guys, especially junior college guys, you just get to the point of when you buy into the process and he’s gotten really invested in the process. What I thought we saw in him last year were a lot of peaks, and the peaks were really good, but there were also some valleys, and those valleys were on the nights where we really needed him. This year I think we’ll see more consistent play and if he plays like one, he’s an all-conference caliber player.”
Those peaks saw him reach double figures 20 times on the season, winning back-to-back SLC Player of the Week honors in the first half of the season. That included a 26-point outburst in a win at Southern Illinois, a 21-point night in a win at eventual league champion New Orleans and 20 points in a home win at Lamar.
He shot .484 from the floor last year and did much of his damage from mid-range and in, but this year has spent time in the gym adding the three-point shot to his repertoire and Hooten feels as though that added dimension could make him even more of an impact player this season.
“Besides Cam (Delaney), Chris has gotten better over this summer more than anybody and the thing he worked hard on the most was his perimeter game and his three-point shooting,” Hooten said. “He’s turned himself into a pretty good three-point shooter and I’m going to let him shoot them.”
The Bearkats also return junior Albert Almanza who brings size, athleticism and a smooth shooting stroke to the lineup. Almanza hit .409 from beyond the arc last season, the best on the Bearkat roster and consistently was able to use his 6-5 frame and length to get his shot off over opposing defenses.
He pumped in a dozen points in an early win at Tennessee Tech and enjoyed a seven-game stretch late in the year where he went 10-for-16 from long distance where he provided a much-needed scoring punch off the bench.
“Albert can bring to us a lot with where our game has started to go, which is playing mismatch guys,” Hooten said. “He’s a mismatch-type guy. A bigger guy can’t follow him around and hopefully he’s gotten to the point where he can take a smaller guy down on the block and score on him. But Albert is a high-level shooter. That’s what he does consistently for us and I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t shoot 40 percent from three-point range this season. He does a great job of stretching the floor, and he makes it a lot easier for our guards to penetrate and create and make things happen for him.”
Others such as Delaney and Jamal Williams could see time in the frontcourt as well, but the Kats will be relying heavily on a slew of newcomers to man the front line this year. None moreso than Abrian Edwards, an athletic transfer from Paris Junior College who can play either forward spot or at the off-guard.
At 6-5 and a tough 200 pounds, Edwards was one of the key signees for the Bearkats entering this year and fits the versatile mold that Hooten and the Bearkat coaching staff looks for, being able to play multiple positions. Hooten says his toughness and all-around ability reminds him of former Bearkat Paul Baxter, but feels as though Edwards brings more to the table offensively and in checking in at 6-5, has the ability to use size more to his advantage.
“He’s a good-sized guard and we haven’t had that in a long time,” Hooten said. “He’s also a guy who can guard multiple positions, 1 thru 4, and is a very tough, willing defender with a lot of athletic ability. Offensively, he’s a guy who can really drive it and can do a lot of things on the offensive end as well as probably being an underrated 3-point shooter.”
The versatility of players such as Edwards and Almanza gives Hooten great flexibility with this year’s roster, maybe even more than in recent years. Each brings both significant size and skill to the floor and gives the Kats the option of playing either a big or small lineup, depending on what the situation calls for.
“I think times we’re going to play differently and play small with some goofy lineups, and maybe even late in the game when we have a lead and we want to switch some stuff, we could absolutely use Abrian to guard a 4-man,” Hooten said. “I’ve seen him do it in junior college and I’ve seen him do it in practice as well. He’s very good offensively with his back to the basket, we already have some set plays put in to post him up and to get him some touches down there and boy when we get him down there he can move and do some things, which really excites me. He’s just a little bit of an added dimension that we haven’t had.”
Edwards was an all-region player for the Dragons last year, averaging 15.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. That came a year after he played at Richland College where he averaged 17 points and eight rebounds per game for the Thunderducks.
Another big signee for the Bearkats is transfer big man Josh Boutte, who was an junior college all-American last year at Dodge City Community College for current Bearkat assistant Kyle Campbell. He did not play basketball out of New Iberia (LA)’s Westgate High School and after sitting out several years joined on with Campbell at DCCC where he quickly made an impact, earning KJCCC Freshman of the year honors in 2016.
An off-season injury this summer will delay the start of his Bearkat career, but when in uniform Hooten knows that he is an impact player on the floor. Boutte averaged a double-double each of the past two seasons at DCCC and will bring a maturity to the team as the oldest player in Division I basketball this year as he will turn 26 in January.
That injury will put plenty of responsibility in the post on the shoulders of a pair of talented freshmen – Chidozie Ndu and Bubba Furlong – to play big roles early in the season. Each were key prep signees last year for the Kats and project to give Sam Houston the top homegrown frontlines in the league in the near future.
Ndu checks in at 6-11 after a high school career that saw him play at one of the top basketball high schools in the country – Kansas’ Sunrise Christian Academy. Hooten knows that the upside is high with Ndu and likens him to former Bearkat great Michael Holyfield, saying he is further along at this point in his career than the former SLC Defensive Player of the Year.
“His world is probably spinning right now,” Hooten said. “Chidozie played at a great high school and we have to tell ourselves that he’s still a young kid who didn’t get that much experience in high school. If he would’ve gotten 30 minutes a night in high school the curves different. But one high school teammate is at A&M and another is at Kansas. That place was loaded. When I went and watched him in practice I was intrigued and knew it is an upside guy. Unfortunately for him, he’s got to be a now guy.”
Ndu, along with Furlong, will be counted on to play in the early going this season with Furlong coming in with plenty of upside of his own. Last year’s District 8-6A MVP joins the Bearkats with a 6-9 frame and the coaches have already seen a marked improvement since arriving in Huntsville to his fitness and physical ability. That, along with a high skill level that averaged 14.0 points and 8.3 rebounds last year at Waco’s Midway High School, gives plenty of reason to think he will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
“Bubba is very talented and has a lot of skill level to. He’s jumping better than he ever has in his life and is both more agile and mobile. I really like his upside,” Hooten said. “I think he’s going to be a good player and right now he’s a little bit ahead of everybody in that position to help us right away. But with him, like several others, the biggest thing is the level of consistency. He can step out and shoot, play with his back to the basket, pass and put it on the floor. He needs to rebound better and be tougher on the boards, but there’s a lot of promise there and when that light comes on and stays on, we got us a player.”
The Kats will also look to 6-7 transfer Freddy Bitondo as an option another mismatch-type player who brings size and athleticism to the Sam Houston frontcourt. Nagged by injuries over the past several years, Hooten was intrigued by him early in his junior college career and feels that if he’s able to get back to full strength he could be a significant addition to an already talented roster.
Hooten and his staff also made a late addition in signing Amarillo Caprock High School prepster Manny Gatkek after a senior season that saw him average 14.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game in the Texas Panhandle, raising his averages each year there. At 6-8, the staff sees him as someone who could project into a significant piece moving forward as he continues to mature physically.
“He’s a ceiling guy and it’s going to be in his best interest that he redshirts this year,” Hooten said. “He’s just a little behind physically and basketball wise but he’s got a good attitude and works hard. He can really shoot the three better than we anticipated and he puts the ball on the floor well. Manny just has to get stronger and more physical so he can guard the big guys and be quicker to guard guards. But we knew all this when we signed him. He’s long and athletic, and you can’t teach that.”