Troy men’s basketball excited for the season

Published 9:25 am Wednesday, November 2, 2022

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Less than a week away from the start of the 2022-2023 men’s basketball season the Troy Trojans are amped up to get started next Monday.

Troy is coming off its first 20-win season since 2017 and also snapped a five-year postseason drought by making it to the College Basketball Invitational in 2021-2022. Despite all of that success, Troy was voted 10th in the preseason poll by the league’s coaches. That low ranking has fueled some motivation for this year’s Trojans.

“We have a lot to prove this year,” Troy senior guard Kieffer Punter said. “They ranked us towards the bottom of the Sun Belt this year after we won 20 games last year.

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“I think that’s put a chip on everyone’s shoulders a little bit, even the guys that weren’t here last year. So, I think Trojan Nation should be excited this year. We’re going to bring a lot of wins to the Trojan Nation.”

Troy lost a number of key players from last year’s team including Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year Efe Odigie, but replenished its ranks with a number of transfers and incoming freshmen. The transfers include former UTSA guard Darius McNeill, Lubbock Christian guard Aamer Muhammad and Georgia State guard Nelson Phillips. McNeill averaged six points, two assists and a steal last year at UTSA, but averaged over 11 points as a freshman and sophomore at California. He’s looking to return to form at Troy.

“It wasn’t really about having to adjust to being here for me, it was more about getting back to where I was as a freshman and sophomore,” McNeill emphasized. “(Troy) gave me the confidence to come here and play my game here. I think I’ve gotten better defensively and being more vocal as a leader, too.”

Darius McNeill comes to Troy after two seasons with UTSA. (Photo courtesy of UTSA Athletics)

Troy spent the offseason not only working out like every other program in the country but also headed over to Costa Rica during the summer for competition and team bonding activities that has helped this year’s team come together possibly quicker than other schools with a lot of new faces.

“I would say we’ve really grown together as a team,” sophomore guard Kirk Cole said. “We were really close in Costa Rica when we were playing over there but I think we’ve grown even closer since then.”

McNeill said the key for the Trojans coming together is the fact that the players all like being around one another off the court as much as on it.

“This is the best group I’ve ever been with as far as being together and enjoying everyone’s company,” he said. “Everyone is outgoing and when we get on the court we compete, but we leave that on the court and off the court we’re still friends with each other.”

Troy head coach Scott Cross points to the team’s defense as being one of the key advantages for the 2022-2023 Trojans.

“Probably our greatest strength will be our defense,” Cross said. “I think we fly around and our guys are really good rotating out of our defense and I think we’ll create a ton of steals this year. I think our guys shoot the ball really well as a team and we’ll be fast and athletic and can play with speed, too.”

Troy returns Preseason All-Sun Belt forward Zay Williams from last year’s team. Williams averaged 7.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in 21-22. Duke Miles (five starts, 8.4 points, 1.9 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game), Punter (two starts, 5.3 points and 1.6 rebounds per game) and Christyon Eugene (two starts, 4.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game) are other returning starters from last year’s team.

Jackson Fields (15) is one of Troy’s newest players. (Photo courtesy of Troy University Athletics)

Freshmen to keep an eye on this season include 6-foot-8-inch forward Jackson Fields (Missouri City, Texas), 6-foot-7-inch forward Randi Ovalle (Dominic Republic), 6-foot-8-inch guard DJ Jamerson (Montgomery), 6-foot-5-inch guard Remy Graham (Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.), 6-foot-4-inch guard Kamryn Mitchell (Dothan) and 5-foot-11-inch guard Andre Young (Mabbleton, Ga.).

The biggest area of concern for the Trojans will be defensive rebounding with the loss of Odigie and others from last year’s team.

“I would say our biggest point of emphasis has been on defensive rebounding,” said Cross. “That’s the area we were really good last year in and we lost some size and strength inside. That’s an area we have to have more of a collective effort to rebound defensively, especially as much as we rotate.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working on our rotations and making sure we’re blocking out all five guys. I think once we sure that up we’ll have the best defense in the Sun Belt.”

Cross’ expectation for his squad stems more on effort than anything else.

“The only expectation I have for our guys is to be the hardest playing team and toughest team out there,” he said. “I just want them to play with confidence, play together, be good teammates and play extremely hard. If we do those things the results will take care of themselves.”

Those results Cross hopes will lead to championships and school records that the team has set its sights on.

“The goal every year is to win the Sun Belt Championship and go to the NCAA Tournament,” he emphasized. “We have another goal each year of winning 20-plus games but in the back of my mind I have another goal that we’ve talked about with the team.

“Since Troy joined Division I the record is 25 wins and we’d love to do something that’s never been done before. So, that’s something we want to do this year, too.”

Zay Williams (10) dunks against Arkansas State. (Photo courtesy of Troy University Athletics)

Punter said another goal for the Trojans this season is upholding the standards that were set last season.

“I think every year is a different battle, a different task,” Punter said. “We always have the same goal every year but when you have a different set of guys it’s kind of like rebuilding and reiterating what our culture is and getting back to the standards we set last year.

“The standard won’t drop because some guys left. Coming in every day with our hard hats on ad keeping that standard that we set is the goal every single day.”

Troy opens up the 2022 portion of the schedule next Monday, Nov. 7, at home against Montevallo at 6 p.m. in Trojan Arena. The game will also stream live on ESPN+. This will be the first time the two schools have met since the 1991-1992 season. Troy is 19-14 all-time against Montevallo.