Returners: Cameron Delaney, John Dewey III, Josh Delaney, Jamal Williams, Marcus Harris

Newcomers: Devin Jackson, Dajuan Jones, Dillon Todd

HUNTSVILLE – The Sam Houston State Bearkats have one of the top point guards in the Southland Conference returning for 2017-18, headlining a talented backcourt crop that will be expected to carry a big load this season.

John Dewey III did not start the first two games of his sophomore year for Jason Hooten’s Bearkats, but moved into the starting lineup for the third game of the season and never gave the job up. The then sophomore from the Bronx went on to average 10.0 points per game for the year and 4.9 assists per contest, ranking second in the Southland in assists in his first year running the show 

The silky-smooth guard was a third team all-SLC choice at season’s end and enters this season as a preseason second team all-SLC choice following a season that certainly had its highs and lows. But with a year under his belt and a quiet toughness, Hooten and the coaching staff have seen him move into more of a leadership role befitting of a team’s floor general.

“There’s a huge difference between last year and now. I see it every day,” Hooten said. “Last year he was a very talented guy, but he was also a guy who was very inconsistent. A lot of that was level of play and trying to figure that out. And a lot of the time guys just feel like they’re a little better than they are and that is normal and you have to get yourself down to earth and that happened for him. When the season was over he decided that he needed to get better and he has.”

Those highs equated to 20 games with at least five assists and 13 games in double-figure scoring, including a 31-point outburst against Abilene Christian in late February that was the first 30-point game by a Bearkat since 2011. He finished the season shooting 35.3 percent from beyond the arc for the season, but made only five threes in the season’s first 19 games before a 4-for-6 outburst on January 19 against Lamar. From there he went on to make 25 of 57 (43.9 percent) from distance in the season’s final 15 contests.

“He’s worked on his shot to a point to where he’s one of our better shooters and I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t shoot high 30s from three this year,” Hooten said. “We have some really good guards in this league but I'd be surprised if John isn’t the best point guard in our league and and a first-team team all-conference guy. I think that highly of him."

Along with Dewey, the Kats return four more guards, with players such as Cameron Delaney and Jamal Williams who will likely see time in the frontcourt as well. Williams is arguably the most versatile player on the Kats’ roster, having spent his entire sophomore season running the point but also with the length and athleticism to play the off-guard and forward spots.

As one of just two seniors on this season’s roster, no Bearkat boasts more experience than Williams’ 101 career games played, and Hooten sees that experience as an invaluable commodity with a team sporting nine newcomers.

“Jamal is probably the most underrated player on our team and gets the least respect,” Hooten said. “I think the reason is because he’s just not a guy that comes out and grabs you. He’s not going to be your leading scorer, but he just really does a lot of things really well, and then you look up at the end of every game and he is always there making plays.”

No play he made last year was bigger than the one he made in the final minute of Sam Houston’s win in the second-round win in the Southland Conference Tournament over Houston Baptist. He played only 13 minutes in that game, scoring just three points, but was on the floor as the seconds wound down and with the Kats clinging to a 56-54 lead, made a game-clinching steal near midcourt that essentially sent the Bearkats to the tournament semifinals.

“He’s just the kind of guy you want. He doesn’t do one thing at an elite level but he’s not a guy you can keep off the floor,” Hooten said. ‘Jamal is always in the gym working his tail off. Two years ago he started at point guard and last year he started just two games and then came off the bench and you didn’t hear one complaint from him. That’s one of the main reasons we won 21 games last year and hopefully win another 20 this year.”

The most improved player on this year’s team may be Delaney, who played in 21 games a year ago and at 6-4 with length and a solid shooting touch, he looks to play an integral role in the Bearkats’ success in 2017-18. He shot 39.5 percent from beyond the arc as a sophomore after transferring from Denver and showed flashes of what he can bring to the table, none moreso than his 19-point outburst in just 11 minutes against LSU-Shreveport early in the season that saw him connect of six of seven three-point tries.

“I think the biggest thing for Cam was just for him to understand what we needed and were wanting from him,” Hooten said. Last year he just would come in off the bench trying to do something to make a point and catch the coaches eye and we needed him to come in and defend and rebound and mix it up. Those were things that either he didn’t understand or he wasn’t ready to do.”

This season Hooten says Delaney has been one of the team’s most impressive players in preseason workouts and turned in 10 points and four rebounds in just 17 minutes in Sunday’s exhibition against UTSA.

Cameron is not the only Delaney with the opportunity to make a difference this season as his brother Josh back for his third season of play in the Bearkat backcourt. He was an impact player off the bench for the Bearkats last season, making at least one three-point bucket in 19 of 31 games played.

Delaney turned in three games with at least 10 points last season, including a season-high 14 that included four triples against Nicholls in early January. He hit 36.7 percent from three for the season with 90 of his 114 field-goal tries coming from beyond the arc.

“What Josh has done is work really hard all summer both on the court and in the weight room and basically came out this year saying ‘You know what? I’m going to play and I’m going to make you play me.’ As a coach you love that and want that," Hooten said. "You want someone who is going to make you have to beat him out. He’s earned some playing time right now and I’m excited for him because there’s no better kid and he is an energy giver. He’s really worked himself into a role that is going to be bigger than the role he’s played to this point.”

That was in full effect in Sunday’s exhibition when he exploded for 17 first-half points, including five three-point buckets on his way to a team-best 20 points for the night.

Another returner from last year’s roster is junior Marcus Harris, a junior guard from San Antonio who is eligible for the season after sitting out 2016-17 following his transfer from the University of San Diego. He averaged 6.6 points and 2.3 rebounds per game for the Toreros in his sophomore season before joining the Kats and brings an exciting aggressive mindset to the floor.

“It’s exciting to see the athleticism and scoring he brings to our team. He’s the type of guy you can look up and he has scored 10 points in just a couple of possessions and you’re like ‘Wait a second, where did that come from?’,” Hooten said. “I think he’s still trying to feel his way around and he has an opportunity to step in. He’s always been a good shooter but he’s turned himself into a really good three-point shooter. He can slash and get to the basket, shoot pull-ups and is also a willing defender.”

The Bearkats will also welcome a trio of newcomers to the backcourt in Devin Jackson, Dajuan Jones and Dillon Todd. Each excels in a different aspect with Jackson coming from the junior college ranks while both Jones and Todd each join the Kats directly from the Texas high school circuit.

Jackson was one of the top shooters in junior college basketball over the past two seasons and finished his sophomore season at Paris Junior College with the fourth most made three-point buckets in the nation. For his career, he finished with 222 makes from distance and averaged 14.2 points per game, including a career-high 30 against Coastal Bend where he connected on 10 of 16 three-point tries.

“Devin is maybe of the nicest kids I’ve ever been around. He is just a tremendous person,” Hooten said. “Offensively he’s a high-level shooter but now things are faster. Defenses are faster and getting to him quicker because he is a high-level shooter. He’s got a lot to learn, but he’s really going to stretch the defense and make them honest because if he’s open it’s got a really good chance of going in.”

Jones and Todd each closed out their high school careers by leading their teams to the regional tournament in their respective classifications. Jones was a three-time all-district choice at Killeen’s Ellison High School, the same high school alma mater as Hooten.

The Bearkats signed Jones late and feel as though they could have gotten a steal in a young player who gives the team another quality option at the point guard spot. He averaged 15.3 points per game for the Eagles last season.

“We felt like we needed a guy like Dajuan to come in and run our team and defend a point, and he can do that,” Hooten said. “He’s a highly intelligent young man but again he’s a freshman and he’s learning the ropes and physicality and trying to get that day-in and day-out grind and expectations. He’s helped John (Dewey) work every day and John has made him better and John has done a really good job taking him under his wing and showing him the ropes.”

Meanwhile, Todd is coming off a prep career that saw him lead Huffman-Hargrave High School to consecutive district titles for the first time in program history. Standing at 6-4 with a smooth shooting touch, Todd brings immediate quality depth to an already deep Bearkat backcourt.

“Dillon is the ultimate team guy and someone you definitely want around,” Hooten said. “He’ll work so hard that eventually he’ll have his chance one day. He’s got to get quicker and get his shot off faster but he can really shoot, is really smart, tough, really strong and doesn’t back down from any. The guys love him.”