Men’s team earns fourth in preseason conference poll

Junior guard Jeff Hodge defends a player in a game versus Mississippi College. The Lions return six lettermen and rank fourth in the conference preseason poll.

by Managing Editor Mike Ezekiel

North Alabama men’s basketball coach Bobby Champagne said he anticipates winning the conference year in and year out.

This year is no exception.

The men’s basketball team finished fourth place in the Gulf South Conference standings last season. They will begin with a similar assessment, as the conference coaches picked the Lions as the fourth best team in the GSC preseason poll.

“Going into every season, my expectation every year is to win the league, go as far as we can in the NCAA tournament and hang another banner up in the rafters,” Champagne said. “I think last year’s team was a couple of games away from being in the NCAA tournament, and who knows what happens then. Expectations are always high on my end.”

The Lions return six lettermen from last season, including senior point guard Dimarrio Jackson. Jackson led the team with 5.0 assists per game last season, and was second with 14.2 points per game.

UNA also returns senior forward Austin Timms and junior guard Jeff Hodge, who each started consistently last season.  Both players averaged roughly 30 minutes per game, with Timms scoring 11.1 PPG and Hodge adding 9.1 PPG.

Senior DeAndre McKinnie and sophomores Tavaras Tolliver and Dakota Holtzclaw each contributed strong minutes off the bench last season and return to this year’s squad with hopes of cracking the starting lineup.

“All of the returners will be in a position to garner the most amount of playing time,” Champagne said. “They understand what’s expected, and they’ve been through it.”

Timms said the biggest difference in last year’s and this year’s team is depth.

“We have a lot bigger team than last year,” Timms said. “We have a lot more talent at every position in my eyes. We have a lot of guards once again like last year. The bigs we do have are pretty quick for our size.”

Junior Sharwyn McGee and freshman Luke Scott each shed their redshirts from last season and will also compete for playing time, Champagne said.

McGee, a 6-5, 225 pound transfer from Northwest Mississippi Community College, is listed on the roster as the team’s only true center, as the Lions expect to run a fast-paced offense similar to last season.

“There’s no back-to-the-basket, big guys in the game anymore,” Champagne said. “Everybody is a stretch-four. Sharwyn is probably the most suited for back-to-the-basket, but he’s undersized. But he’s also a relentless rebounder, and he’ll be able to fit in.”

McGee said although he is the only center on the roster, UNA’s offensive style fits the stretch-four players.

“The way coach spreads the offense out with the motion offense, it gives the four and five chances to pop out and cause mismatches,” McGee said. “We’re going to have a great team with size and more athleticism.” 

Joining McGee and Timms in the post is Dame Ottman, a 6-8, 205 pound Division I transfer from Troy University. Champagne said he expects Ottman to compete for minutes right away at the four.

To help the guard and small forward spots, the Lions added three transfers. Junior guard/forward Johnell Ginnie, a transfer from Pensacola State College, initially redshirted at West Florida his freshman year and has witnessed GSC basketball. He also made the All-Panhandle Conference second-team in 2015.

Others include sophomore guard Carter Sweat, who was with Timms at Itawamba Community College in 2014, and sophomore guard/forward Myrek Lee-Fowlkes, a Garden City Community College transfer.

Champagne said everyone not redshirting has a chance to compete for playing time with a handful of practices before the start of the regular season.

The Lions open the regular season against Tampa Nov. 12 in Flowers Hall. For the full schedule, visit roarlions.com.