From OC Sports
Murray Evans, Sports Information Director
OKLAHOMA CITY – Last season was almost entirely unpleasant for the Oklahoma Christian Eagles. OC men’s basketball coach Dan Hays would rather forget about what he refers to as “a lousy year” and focus on what is ahead.
Who could blame him for doing that?
Shades aren’t necessarily needed – yet – but the Eagles’ future seems so bright as they enter their season opener on Friday night at home against Texas A&M-Commerce.
Four starters, including the Heartland Conference’s best center, return, along with three others who might have started last season if they hadn’t of had to sit out for various reasons. OC also will be eligible for the first time for the Heartland Conference tournament and the NCAA Division II postseason.
“We’ve been waiting three years for this,” Hays said, alluding to the university’s transition process from the NAIA into full NCAA membership. “We will have a chance to compete for a championship and that’s what we’ve wanted.”
Last season, four freshmen and three sophomores were key parts of the Eagles’ rotation, showing glimpses of what OC basketball could become. While at times it was tough, one benefit was those players were forced to grow up fast and deal with the pressures of facing a rugged Division II schedule. Hays figures that experience will pay off going forward.
“We are a different animal this year,” Hays said. “We’re healthy for the first time in three years. We’re a year older and we have really found the right mix of offense, defense and personnel that will be good for us. Those kids that played last season are better and we are so much deeper. So much deeper.
“We are much more at ease with what we’re doing. We’ve gone back in time with a lot of things that we’re doing, that were time-tested. We’ve gone back to things that we were doing in the ’90s.”
OC’s top player last season – one who has continued the Eagles’ recent run of strong post play – was 7-foot center John Moon, who averaged 17.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.0 blocked shots and 1.0 assists per game. Entering his junior season, Moon, a second-team All-Heartland pick in 2014-15, is riding a streak of 25 straight games with at least one blocked shot.
Moon figures to receive a major assist this season from 6-foot-8 power forward Chiza Ntirata. Recruited out of junior college before the 2014-15 season, Ntirata – called an “X-factor’ by Hays – sat out last season while dealing with NCAA eligibility issues. He should provide another shot-blocking threat and a physical presence for which opponents must account.
Jordan Rutherford will start the season as the Eagles’ starting small forward and Hays thinks the junior will improve upon his sophomore-season averages of 6.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. The coach calls Rutherford the Eagles’ best passer and post feeder, a reason his ball-handling responsibilities will increase.
Sophomores Tripp Fuller and Cameron Peters saw considerable time last season in reserve roles on the Eagles’ front line, giving Hays experienced options off the bench. Freshman Geoffery Hightower – whose playing style Hays compares to that of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Mitch McGary – should also play a key role inside, while sophomore Spencer Shaw has a season in the OC system under his belt.
Injuries played havoc with the OC backcourt last season, with Deric Shelton (back) missing the entire season and Zach Norris never fully returning from an ankle injury suffered in the season opener, in which he started at point guard. Both are fully healthy this season and should contribute to what looks to be a deep backcourt rotation.
Entering the season as the starting guards will be a pair of sophomores, Elijah Strickland and Jordan Box. Most of last season, Box was at the point with Strickland opposite him, but when Hays had them switch positions, the Eagles’ fortunes dramatically improved, leading to late-season wins at Oklahoma Panhandle State and Dallas Baptist (Texas) as well as an upset of Heartland power Arkansas-Fort Smith.
Shelton is capable of scoring in bunches, while Norris is a cerebral player and an excellent distributor of the basketball. Junior Luis Lopez – whom Hays calls the “best leader” he has ever coached – also can provide the Eagles critical minutes off the bench and freshman Daniel Eibel should also be in the backcourt rotation.
Hays said numerous players – including Norris, Strickland, Box, Shelton and Rutherford – all could play at the point guard, shooting guard or small forward positions, which gives the Eagles added flexibility.
Rounding out the Eagles’ backcourt are sophomore Stephen Amalong – who demonstrated long-range shooting ability in limited playing time last season – and freshmen walk-ons Garrett Goddard and Cory Covarrubia, who provide valuable, vital practice competition for the Eagles.
The prize at the end of the Eagles’ journey hopefully will be one of the eight spots in the newly expanded Heartland Conference postseason tournament, which will be played for the first time in Tulsa. Winning that tournament would propel OC into the NCAA Division II tournament.
But first things first. Hays wants his team to focus on day-by-day improvement.
“I’ve still got to be patient,” he said. “We’ve got some good teams on our schedule. But that’s OK. We ought to be good too.”