HUNTSVILLE - The Sam Houston State men’s basketball team is set to begin preparing for its Southland Conference title defense when the nonconference portion of the schedule tips off Nov. 5 with a home matchup against Paul Quinn.
Bearkats head coach Jason Hooten has a solid group of returning players who make a strong nucleus to build around with the newcomers. Led by last season’s SLC Newcomer of the Year, senior Kai Mitchell, Sam Houston State will look to improve off last season’s 21-win mark.
Kai Mitchell busted onto the scene as a transfer from Hutchinson Community College last season and helped the Bearkats win their first Southland Conference regular-season championship in nine years. He earned Southland Conference Newcomer of the Year and third-team all-conference honors.
A native of Haverstraw, New York, Mitchell averaged 12.5 points and 7.6 rebounds in 33 games, 32 of which he started. He had 37 assists, 34 steals and 24 blocks on the season.
“Kai has continued to focus on his conditioning and really improved his jump shot and versatility,” Hooten said. “We will need him to rebound at a high level as he takes on the challenge of carrying an even bigger load than last season.”
Junior Bubba Furlong saw his playing time increase as a sophomore, appearing in 27 games and averaging 9.5 minutes on the court last season. He averaged 3.3 points and 2.6 rebounds per game and scored a season-high 11 points in a win over Jackson State.
“We are really excited to see what this season has in store for Bubba,” Hooten said. “He has worked harder than ever before and even coming off of minor knee surgery, he is in the best shape of his life. He has a high skill level and can be another versatile inside-out player for our program.”
Junior RJ Smith displayed his physical skills last season, appearing in 30 games as a redshirt sophomore. He averaged 6.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in 16.6 minutes per game and also shot 43.9 percent from 3-point range
Smith’s most productive offensive outing came in conference play with a season-high 16 points against Northwestern State on Jan. 23 by going a perfect 4 for 4 from behind the arc.
“RJ has improved in a lot of areas and is looking for a break out season,” Hooten said. “We will look for him to rebound at a high level and continue making strides on the defensive end.”
Cyrus Johnson to a redshirt his freshman season a year ago, so Hooten and his staff are anxious to see how his progress translates to the court.
“After redshirting last season, Cy has continued to improve his skill level and adapt to the Division I level,” Hooten said. Cy has the ability to rebound and defend at a high level, while bringing toughness and energy to our program.”
The Bearkats have some playmakers returning to the front court this season. Youngsters Zach Nutall and Xavier Bryant saw plenty of action as true freshmen in 2018-19 and senior Chad Bowie was a nice addition from Kilgore College.
Bowie made 10 starts and appeared in 30 games last season. As a junior, he averaged 7.0 points on 41.4 percent shooting from the field and poured in a season-high 21 points against Central Michigan last December.
“Chad has really improved his 3-point shooting and leadership,” Hooten said. “He will play a significant role on the defensive end of the floor and bring a needed toughness to our team.”
Nutall made an immediate impact as a true freshman, averaging 17.1 minutes in 33 games while playing behind SLC Player of the Year Cameron Delaney. He averaged 6.6 points and 3.2 rebounds per contest and also had 31 assists, 21 steals and 10 blocks on the season.
Nutall scored a career-high 18 points in a win over Central Arkansas on Jan. 9.
After playing big minutes as a true freshman behind Cameron Delaney, we are excited about the experience Zach gained last season,” Hooten said. “He has worked extremely hard on his body and conditioning, while improving his overall game. Zach will take on a major role for this basketball team this season.”
Bryant also saw significant playing time as a true freshman, appearing in 22 games despite missing some time due to injury. He averaged 8.2 minutes per game and 2.2 points and had 53 assists and 17 steals on the season.
“X came on really strong at about the midpoint of last season before suffering an ankle injury that required surgery,” Hooten said. “He has worked very hard and spent a lot of time in the gym. We are excited about the next step in his young career as he continues to improve his shooting and leadership abilities.”
After playing in 14 games as a true freshman in 2017-18, sophomore Dajuan Jones took a redshirt last season. He has continued to improve his game and is expected to be a solid defender for the Bearkats this season.
“After redshirting last season, Dajuan has worked extremely hard and will play a big role on this team,” Hooten said. “His shot and leadership ability have continued to improve, as well as being one of our best on-the-ball defenders.”
Next up: A season preview of the newcomers will be released Nov. 4 ahead of the season opener.