If Arkansas Tech had two recruiting needs for its men’s basketball program going into the 2011-12 season, they were the point guard and center positions. The initial indications are that those needs were addressed in a major way. Senior point guard Mykel Cleveland of Mobile, Ala., and junior center Will Paul of Corpus Christi, Texas, lead a talented collection of newcomers that helped make the nationally 24th-ranked Wonder Boys the preseason favorites to win the inaugural Great American Conference championship despite the fact that Arkansas Tech only returns one starter.
Standing 6-foot-10 inches tall, Paul transferred to Arkansas Tech from Stanford University. He appeared in 40 games and started six during two years with the Cardinal. He averaged four points per game and shot 47 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore in 2008-09.
Paul scored 2,142 career points and collected 1,198 career rebounds at Calallen High School in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he was a two-time first team all-state selection and a McDonald’s All-America nominee. Calallen won 100 games during Paul’s four-year high school career.
“Will is a really skilled player, a good kid and a good fit for our program,” said Doug Karleskint, who led the Wonder Boys to a 25-6 overall record, a Gulf South Conference West Division title and a berth in the second round of the NCAA Division II Tournament in his first season as Tech head coach in 2010-11. “We will look to go inside more this year because we have more capabilities to score in the post. We played small ball a lot last year and relied on our defense to create our offense. Hopefully we can score a little easier in the post than we did last year.”
Cleveland is a transfer from Southern Illinois University, where he appeared in 29 games and made 11 starts for the NCAA Division I Salukis last season. He led Southwestern Illinois College to 57 victories while playing his freshman and sophomore seasons at the junior college level. “Point guard was an area we needed to address after the graduation of Laithe Massey,” said Karleskint. “It’s tough to replace everything he brought to the table, but Kendell Pinkney is a year older at that position and he is doing a great job as a leader for us. We recruited and signed Mykel Cleveland, and he’s a young man with talent who can do some things that a lot of the other kids on our team can’t do. He’s starting to figure out what we need from him, but there’s always that transition when you go into a new program.”
As a senior at Williamson High School in Mobile, Ala., Cleveland averaged 24 points, eight assists and six rebounds per game while leading his team to a 28-2 record. Williamson High was 61-4 during Cleveland’s last two prep seasons.
Senior guard Johnie Davis of Canton, Ohio, leads a group of six returning players for Arkansas Tech. He was the Wonder Boys’ top scorer in 2010-11 (16.3 points per game), and he only got stronger as the season went along. Davis scored 20 or more points in 12 games a year ago, and eight of those 20-plus point performances came after Jan. 21.
“The thing that Johnie does is score, and that’s what we want him to do,” said Karleskint. “That’s his strength, and we try to get him the ball in space. That’s why we play on open style. When he’s on, I think he’s the best player in the conference.”
Other returnees for the Wonder Boys include senior guard Matt Haney of Dardanelle (5.0 points, 2.2 rebounds per game); senior forward Blake Mitchem of Fort Smith (2.5 points, 2.0 rebounds per game); junior guard Jared Williamson of Russellville (8.1 points, 2.8 rebounds per game); junior guard Chase White of Fort Smith (1.7 points per game) and sophomore guard Kendell Pinkney of Dardanelle (0.6 points, 0.9 assists per game).
“(Pinkney) has taken the new guys under his wing and shown them how we do things here,” said Karleskint. “We work hard every single day in four-man groups, practice, weights and study hall. That’s how we win here. We’re not always the most talented team on the floor, but we will out-work people and do it the right way. As a coach, you’ve got to lean on your returners. I’ve challenged those guys to be more vocal and step up in the locker room.”
Joining Cleveland and Paul among the Arkansas Tech newcomers are senior guard Jeff Reese of Laurel Hill, Fla., a transfer from Murray State University; junior forward Stephen Coles of Danville, Va., a transfer from Indian Hills Community College; junior guard Jeremy Hoard of Russellville, a transfer from Paris Junior College; junior guard Kyler Nelson of Bentonville, a transfer from Frank Phillips Junior College; junior guard Fred Ford of Fort Wayne, Ind., a transfer from Vincennes University who is scheduled to redshirt this season; junior forward Paul Cooper of Auburndale, Fla., a transfer from Texas Tech University who is scheduled to redshirt this season; freshman guard Tyler Friedel of Victoria, Texas; freshman guard Marshawn Arnold of Arkadelphia; and freshman forward Nick Wayman of Valley Springs.
Arkansas Tech will open its 2011-12 men’s basketball season on Nov. 15 with a 7 p.m. home game against Central Baptist College. GAC play will begin on Jan. 5 when the Wonder Boys host Arkansas-Monticello.
The Arkansas Tech non-conference schedule is highlighted by a pair of games against perennial Gulf South Conference contender Christian Brothers University; two contests against nationally 11th-ranked Central Oklahoma; a neutral site game with 2011 NCAA Division II Tournament participant Montevallo University; and a date on Dec. 29 for a regular season game against Texas A&M University, which is ranked as high as No. 19 in the nation at the NCAA Division I level in preseason polls.
“We decided last summer that we wanted to beef up the schedule, and now as I look at it I’m wishing maybe not so much,” said Karleskint. “But it will be good for our guys.”
The Wonder Boys will begin their 2011-12 basketball season when they host Central Baptist College for a 7 p.m. contest at Tucker Coliseum in Russellville on Tuesday, Nov. 15.
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