Oct. 15, 2007
The third-most conference wins by a first-year Sun Belt school (10), advancing to the semifinal of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and the most prolific offensive attack in school history made the 2006-07 season a success for the Florida Atlantic University men's basketball team. But second-year Head Coach Rex Walters wants it to be only the beginning.
"We took steps in the right direction," said Walters. "We had some issues throughout the year but we played some real good basketball in February and March."
The outlook wasn't always so bright for Florida Atlantic last season. The team started the year with only eight healthy players for the first four games and got off to a 0-4 start. The injury woes worsened in game five at North Florida, as the Owls dressed only seven players, but came away with the season's first victory.
From there, the season grew brighter by the day. FAU tacked on two more wins following the win over UNF to climb within a game of .500. After a loss to UCF, the Owls bounced back to win their first-ever Sun Belt Conference game, 91-87 against Troy at FAU Arena on December 13.
With two more wins, one at home against UMKC on December 23, and one on the road against conference foe Florida International on December 28, the Owls had won 7-of-10 and were back to .500 at 6-6.
The next two months were up and down for FAU. The team never won or lost more than two games in a row from December 30 to February 3, but on February 6 the team rattled off five consecutive wins, including conference wins at home over Florida International, New Orleans and South Alabama, and a monumental victory at perennial powerhouse Western Kentucky.
The Owls opened SBC Tournament play with a 91-88 win over Florida International, a game played at FAU Arena by virtue of FAU's fifth-place regular-season finish.
The season may have came to a close in the semifinals of the SBC Tournament, as FAU lost the rubber match with WKU in a hard-fought contest, but the Owls made an impact in the Sun Belt.
As the Owls begin preparation for the 2007-08 season, it's no surprise that health is the top priority on Coach Walters' list. The team struggled with injuries throughout 2006-07, and after losing two of the program's best players in DeAndre Rice and Brent Crews, FAU will need the full complement of players to build off last season's success.
The offense was extremely proficient last season, as the Owls scored the most points in program history and finished 14th in the nation in field goal percentage. But defensively the team struggled and was a point of emphasis in the off-season for Coach Walters.
"We have to get better in our transition and one-on-one containment defense," said Walters. "It was just too easy for teams at times last season. You win with defense. Everywhere I've been it's been a priority, because good defense leads to scoring opportunities."
The guard positions have been impacted heavily by the graduation of Crews, who compiled the second-most assists in FAU history, and Rice, who was one of the most skilled offensive players in FAU history. Paul Graham (Jr.) is the only starter who returns among the three guard spots, but Sean Alarcon (Sr.), Eni Cuka (So.) and Avery Holley (So.) all saw playing time last season and will compete for playing time this season. In addition, there are three new faces joining the backcourt. Redshirt freshmen Xavier Perkins and Sanchez Hughley combine with junior college transfer Carderro Nwoji to give FAU a massive influx of talent.
"In my mind we lost the best offensive player in the league from a season ago (in Rice), and that's saying something with the talent in the Sun Belt," said Walters. "There are so many great players in this league, but he was special."
Graham had a breakout season as a sophomore, doubling his point production and improving in nearly every statistical category. He finished 15th in the Sun Belt in scoring in 2006-07, and was amazingly consistent on the offensive end (10+ points in all but three games). In addition to his scoring touch, Graham added 3.31 assist/game and had the league's seventh-best assist-to-turnover ratio.
"Paul made significant improvements in his first two years. He's added some size and is great offensively in transition," said Walters. "Ideally I'd like to lock him into one position, but he's shown the ability to play all three guard spots."
Alarcon, Holley and Cuka each saw action in various roles last season both as starters and as reserves, and will push for bigger roles this season.
"Sean does everything we ask of him, Avery is a playmaker and Eni was limited last season after transferring so we're excited to see what he can do with a full season," said Walters.
The ability of some of the new faces to adapt to the Owls' complex offense will ultimately shape the look of FAU's backcourt.
"Carderro is probably the one with the most to learn in a short timeframe," Walters said. "He has to learn the offense, know how the coaching staff wants the plays to be run and learn all of the subtleties of each of his teammates on the court. I know he can really defend and push the basketball up the court, but he has to get to the point where it's instinct rather than thinking."
Hughley and Perkins were on last year's squad, but injuries bumped the start of their careers to this season after each took a redshirt.
"There's going to be a learning curve taking what they were able to do in practice and executing it in a game situation," said Walters. "Xavier was very consistent last season each and every practice, and both will come into this season with an understanding of what we do and how we try to accomplish it."
The frontcourt has a bit more experience than the backcourt, returning four forwards from a season ago, all of whom are seniors. They are joined by three newcomers in Sammy Hernandez, who transferred to FAU in the spring of 2007 from George Mason, Brett Royster and Jamal Owens.
"All three newcomers are high-level athletes," said Walters. "We hope Jamal will grow into a similar style player to Jeff Parmer, a guy who can play down low or step outside and handle the basketball. Brett is a tenacious shot blocker who has worked hard offensively and continued to improve. If healthy, both will have a significant impact on this team."
"Sammy is a winner. He expects to win every time out. He's a great post defender and he's strong down low. He's really going to help our team rebounding, which is another area that I felt needed to improve. We need to limit teams to one shot each trip down the floor."
The trio join Second-Team All-Sun Belt player Carlos Monroe (Jr.), the only player to finish in the top eight in both scoring and rebounding in the SBC. Monroe, who also led the conference in field goal percentage, was a dominant force down low last season and posted 11 double-doubles, tying an FAU single-season record.
The Owls will also welcome back three senior forwards in Parmer, who averaged 9.9 points and 5.5 rebounds and at times showed the ability to carry the offensive load last season, Derrick Simmons, the only four-year senior on the squad, and Seydou Kone.
"Derrick is a great energy guy. He makes things happen whether it's as a starter or off the bench," said Walters. "Jeff is a guy who can score 20 points on any given night and we want more of that this season."
Kone was limited by injuries during his first season as an Owl, but managed to appear in 25 games as a reserve.
The Owls will once again challenge themselves with a difficult schedule, starting with a seven-game road trip to start the season.
The road swing includes the three-game Daytona Beach Exempt Tournament where FAU will face Stetson, USF and Cleveland State November 16-18. In addition, the Owls will travel to Rhode Island to open the season on November 9, Boston College on November 12 and Kansas on November 28.
"I think you have to play the high majors to show the team what it's like to be at that level, which is where we're trying to get," said Walters. "You have to show them what it takes to be at that level and how hard it is to win on the road. Those games will be a good indicator for this program and hopefully we'll have some success and give ourselves a boost."
A lot of things have to go right in order for a team to win a conference title. The list of needs can be overwhelming at the start of the season if it isn't broken into more manageable pieces.
"We talk about being champions of that day. Seize the moment and take advantage of the opportunities presented. It starts with individual workouts and goes on throughout the season," said Walters. "If we do that, we have a chance to contend."
Coach Walters also feels that the program needs the continued support of its growing fan base, which includes the students at FAU.
"The crowds last year really helped create some excitement, especially with the Burry the Burrow promotions," said Walters. "We have to springboard off that excitement level and take advantage of our great location and play hard for the fans. We want to make FAU Arena the place to be on a game night. Our players really feed off the fans, especially the student section. We want make them proud of their basketball team."
FAU Arena, which underwent a $10 million renovation during the summer, features refurbished locker rooms, lobby and restrooms, a new scoreboard, chair back seating on the west sideline and an enhanced exterior. In addition, a new team store is located in the lobby and a ticket booth has been added in front of the Arena to minimize congestion inside the Arena.
"Our coaching staff gained a real selling point this summer," said Walters. "A lot of very exciting things are happening at FAU thanks to (FAU President) Frank Brogan and (Athletics Director) Craig Angelos. They did their jobs, and now it's time for us to do ours."