"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Radford Preview, 2022-23

Radford Highlanders

November 7, 2022, Fiserv Forum

Head Coach: Darris Nichols (11-18)

Three-Year NET Average: 233.3

Three-Year kenpom Average: 237.3

Projected 2022-23 T-Rank: 280

Projected Starters: PG Josiah Jeffers (6'1" Sr), SG DaQuan Smith (6'2" Sr), SF Onyebuchi Ezeakudo (6'2" RS Sr), PF Bryan Antoine (6'5" Jr), C Shaquan Jules (6'7" Sr)

Josiah Jeffers is back after leading Radford in scoring and assists

Photo from Radford Athletics

Taking a glance at 2021-22 Radford, Head Coach Darris Nichols' debut campaign had the worst winning percentage for the Highlanders in 10 years. But while the initial impression is disappointing, there are reasons for optimism. Per T-Rank, the Highlanders were at #301 on January 31. Over the last month of the season, they played like the #235 ranked team and in 9 of their 10 losses after the new year they either had a second half lead or went to overtime. The improvement primarily came on the offensive end, where their efficiency improved from 325 to 254 and eFG% improved from 322 to 250. This shift was also driven by a major improvement in turning opponents over (#169 to #11 turnover rate) and reduction in tempo (66.2 possessions per game to 63.6). In the final third of the season, they slowed the pace, created more possessions, and got better shots. The question will be if they can sustain that in 2022-23.

Josiah Jeffers will lead that attack. Those offensive improvements above were exemplified by his eFG% improving from 39.1% in the first 20 games to 53.2% in the last 9. A pair of transfers join Jeffers in the back court. DaQuan Smith comes from Murray State, where he was a starter for the Racers in 2019-20 before losing his spot. The highest profile newcomer Bryan Antoine, a 2019 McDonald's All-American who joins by way of Villanova but has been beset by injuries. Both of those players should do well against Big South competition. Up front, expect Shaquan Jules to move into a featured role after serving as a bruising reserve forward. Nichols has a host of big man options, with JUCO transfer D'Auntray Pierce providing the athletic shot-blocker they needed and grad transfers Souleymane Koureissi (Richmond) and Madiaw Niang (Florida Atlantic) providing additional options. Also expect contributions from Onyebuchi Ezeakudo, who went from freshman walk-on to spot starter at Pittsburgh before transferring to Radford.

Darris Nichols played college for John Beilein and Bob Huggins. After a year playing professionally in Hungary, he returned stateside and got into coaching. He started as a grad assistant at West Virginia and spent time also working for Mike Young at Wofford and Mike White at both Louisiana Tech and Florida. Offensively, they start with a slow pace that, as mentioned, got slower as the year went on. They didn't do much well but took a lot of threes and hit the offensive glass hard. As a team, their 3PFG% was dragged down by a trio of now-departed sophomores that all shot under 30%. Adding guys like Smith, Antoine, Ezeakudo, and freshman Ibu Yamazaki should improve their shooting. On defense, expect them to roll out some pressure zone. That was the crux of their turnover success. They are also solid at team rebounding, limiting opponent possessions while having a plethora of new experienced big men to go along with Jules.

Digging in, Nichols' team did figure it out as the season went on and adding five transfers from top-150 programs is a significant talent influx for a Big South squad. Nichols definitely flexed some of his Florida recruiting experience muscles (he was Antoine's lead recruiter for the Gators in high school). I really think once they gel, this could be an overachiever in the Big South and if it all goes right, they could be back to the level Mike Jones had them at sooner rather than later. But for Marquette, they won't be playing them in February. On November 7th, this will be a team with thirteen (including walk-ons) new players on the roster and only two returnees with system experience. Marquette should have little trouble with this team in the season opener. Expect a healthy margin of victory with the potential to age into an upper end Quadrant 4 win as the season goes on.

What We've Learned: In their exhibition against Mary Baldwin, Ezeakudo was a starter. While that may not hold against Marquette, they played small most of the game, with Madiaw Niang (15 minutes) the only player taller than 6'8" to enter the game. Their leading scorers were Yamazaki and fellow freshman Kenyon Giles, both of whom tallied 21 points. While none of the starters played more than 24 minutes, those two were both getting first half minutes so expect them to both factor off the bench. The Radford defense had 13 steals and forced 19 turnovers, so also look for the Highlanders to try to match Marquette's defense with pressure of their own. And while just an exhibition, the two aforementioned freshman went a combined 6/11 from three as the team went 12/22, so at least for one night, the shooting woes of last season look to have been somewhat mitigated.

Marquette Connection: This will be the first time Marquette has ever played Radford, but it won't be the first time Darris Nichols has gone up against Marquette. Nichols was a guard for West Virginia when they took on Marquette in Big East play in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Nichols' teams went 2-1 against MU, with the home team taking the W each time out. He was a little used reserve the first year, but was a starter in both 2007 and 2008, highlighted by a 12 point, 5 assist effort in the Mountaineers' 79-64 2008 win in Morgantown.

No comments: