Basketball is back, and if preseason polls are to be believed, it will be an exciting winter at Tucker Coliseum.
The Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys, who reached the championship game of the Great American Conference Tournament in a turnaround season last year, are picked in the top two of the GAC in 2023-24. It is their highest preseason ranking since 2016-17, which also happens to be the last time the Wonder Boys reached the NCAA Division II Tournament.
“Having some guys back and having that continuity we’ve established…it is nice to have those guys back to set the example in practice and give us some leadership,” said Mark Downey, ATU head men’s basketball coach. “I think we’ve added some really good players around them. It could be a special year.”
Junior guard Taelon Peter of Russellville figures to be a GAC player of the year candidate. He averaged 15.5 points per game and was named All-GAC in 2022-23. Junior forward Tommy Kamarad of Buford, Ga., averaged 7.8 points per game and shot 36 percent from 3-point range last season. Junior guard B.J. Johnson of El Dorado is a defensive stopper with the capability to take away the opponent’s best perimeter scorer. Junior Kade Shaffer of Russellville has the skills to play either guard position.
Senior forward Seybian Sims, a transfer from the Northern Kentucky University, is the 6-foot-7 wing scorer that every basketball coach covets. Sims is back after missing the 2022-23 season due to injury.
The most important addition for ATU’s men might be junior point guard Cassius Brooks of Chicago, Ill. A transfer from Kirkwood College, Brooks looks like the point guard solution Downey has been searching for since returning to Arkansas Tech for his second stint at the helm of the men’s basketball program in 2020.
Add in an intriguing group of freshmen — guard Braden Tanner of Dardanelle and forward Damon Augustus of Texarkana didn’t play like freshmen when I saw them in a recent scrimmage — and several transfers with the talent to compete for playing time, and it feels like Arkansas Tech is returning to the form that saw it become one of the top NCAA Division II men’s basketball programs in the country from 2009-17.
“Our guard play was inexperienced last year,” said Downey. “We turned the ball over way too much and we struggled at the free throw line. This team really shoots the ball. In recruiting, we’ve become very intentional about getting guys who can make shots. I also think this could be one of the best defensive teams I’ve ever coached. They really take pride in that end of the floor. That’s a good combination…if you can make shots, make free throws and guard somebody, you’ve got a chance to be pretty good.”
The Arkansas Tech Golden Suns are No. 4 in the GAC women’s basketball preseason poll.
That ranking is a testament to head coach Dave Wilbers and what he has built since becoming the head women’s basketball coach at Arkansas Tech in 2007. Wilbers has 342 wins during that time. Only Joe Foley (women’s basketball, 456 wins, 1987-2003) and Sam Hindsman (men’s basketball, 355 wins, 1947-66) have won more games as a head basketball coach at Arkansas Tech.
ATU lost 57 percent of its women’s basketball scoring from a season ago. Guards Jalei Oglesby (20.6 points per game) and Kaley Shipman (12.8 points per game) exemplified what it means to be a Golden Sun, up to and including the fact they both graduated last May.
Junior guard Alex Hill (10.2 points per game) and senior forward Dana Thompson (7.3 points per game) are Arkansas Tech’s top returning scorers. The greatest strength of the Golden Suns’ roster might be size. ATU has eight players 6 foot or taller, and the most common height among its guards is 5-foot-10.
“It’s completely changed our style,” said Wilbers. “Last year, we weren’t very big and we had two elite scorers on the team. We’re probably going to look at more two-post line-ups this year, which I like from a rebounding perspective. One of our post players will have to guard guards at times, but we’re doing a good job of getting in a stance and doing that. We’ll also play more zone than we have the last couple of years and run more motion offense rather than dribble drive and playing one-on-one.”
The Wonder Boys will open their season in a classic at Emporia, Kan., on Friday, Nov. 10, and Saturday, Nov. 11. ATU’s men will face nationally 20th-ranked Emporia State University at 5:30 p.m. Friday and Fort Hays State University at 5:45 p.m. Saturday.
The Golden Suns will host Champion Christian College in their season opener at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, at Tucker Coliseum.
We’ll have live coverage of the Wonder Boys’ game on Friday and the Golden Suns’ game on Saturday on KCJC 102.3 FM, the River Country KCJC website and the EAB Media Group app.
One other early-season schedule note: it should be a really entertaining doubleheader at Tucker Coliseum on Thursday, Nov. 16. The Golden Suns will host Pittsburg State University at 5:30 p.m. and the Wonder Boys will entertain Drury University at 7:30 p.m. If you’re excited about the start of basketball season, I wouldn’t miss that one.
Talk to you on the radio.
Tech Tidbits is a column written by Sam Strasner, ATU director of university relations and radio play-by-play voice for ATU football and basketball.