Oct. 21, 2009
Just a few moments with Lennox Forrester and it is easy to tell SIUE's third-year men's basketball coach is excited about the upcoming season. There is also a prevailing message that is quite clear.
"We have to be the toughest team out there every single night," Forrester said. "It all starts in practice and with workouts." Toughness is part of the 2009-10 philosophy for Forrester, his staff and team.
"The things we will build the program on this year are pride, togetherness and toughness," Forrester said. "I am tremendously excited about this group."
Despite already playing one season as a Division I program, the new season will bring a fresh start to it in a sense. The team will play a full Division I schedule for the first time, with 25 of 27 scheduled games coming against true Division I competitors. Seven of those teams competed in post-season play a year ago, including a pair of NCAA teams from the Big Ten Conference.
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville will open the 2009-10 slate at Illinois and travel to West Lafayette, Ind., to face Big Ten Tournament champion Purdue. SIUE opens the home portion of the schedule against Illinois State of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Redbirds were an NIT team a year ago. So, too, was UT Martin, a future Ohio Valley Conference opponent, which the Cougars will face on the road in January. Two other Missouri Valley teams, Evansville and Drake, participated in the inaugural College Insider Tournament a season ago.
"The things we will build the program on this year are pride, togetherness and toughness."
SIUE Head Coach Lennox Forrester
Forrester insists that Cougars will not change their approach to accommodate a tougher schedule.
"I would put more emphasis on competing," he said. "There are a lot of guys returning who have done it before. We're going to look at every game individually, and we're going to be excited about every one of them."
Forrester believes that the makeup of his team will allow them to be successful despite a tougher schedule in year two of the transition to Division I.
"As for the group of guys here: I am excited about the energy and effort they are going to give us," Forrester said. "I really like their attitude and approach."
SIUE will have seven players returning who saw time in a game last year, two redshirt players and five newcomers to the program.
Successful Rookie Campaign
The top returner is sophomore Mark Yelovich (Mt. Zion). Yelovich enjoyed one of the most successful rookie campaigns in school history last year. The 6-6 forward led the team in scoring with an average of 13.7 points a game, becoming only the third freshman in SIUE history to do so. Yelovich's 369 total points ranked as the second-most points by a freshman in school history. He was named first team All-Independent a year ago for his efforts.
Forrester said the success has not diminished Yelovich's drive.
"He is the hardest worker on this team right now," Forrester said. "When one of your best players is your hardest worker, that is a big part of becoming a good basketball team."
Despite the strong first year, Forrester believes Yelovich has improved his game. "I think Mark has become a better defender than he was last year," Forrester said. "He is more committed to his defense and he has gotten stronger. He will be a better perimeter defender and also a better interior defender."
Forrester also believes that Yelovich will benefit from increased pre-season workouts.
"Last year he missed the conditioning and weightlifting," he said. "That is a huge part of being a competitor and performing at a high level. Think about what he did for us last year."
Of the other returners, three are seniors and two of them, Aamir McCleary (Philadelphia, Pa.) and Stephen Jones (Bethalto), will lead the way as co-captains for the team. McCleary, who transferred to SIUE for his junior season, will play his second year with the Cougars, while Jones is in his third season after transferring for his sophomore year from Northern Iowa. Forrester believes that McCleary has a great impact on the Cougars' success during the season.
Buying Into the System
"When you look back at last year, I thought when Aamir goes we go as a team," Forrester said of the 6-1 point guard. "He bought into our system last year, but a little later. Now he sees what we want, and I see his production being better early."
Forrester has no doubt that McCleary will be a successful captain.
"He'll help with the guys-help get his team ready to play," the head coach said. "We're counting on Aamir to be a leader on the floor and off."
Forrester said Jones, a 6-0 guard, is not resting just because it is his senior season.
"This is his last go-around on the basketball court," Forrester said. "He worked hard this summer to get quicker, faster and stronger."
Forrester also sees a new role for Jones this coming season.
"He is going to be a defensive stopper for our team," Forrester said. "I see him guarding the other team's best player on a nightly basis. Again, as an older guy, he'll help us be ready for games."
Never Makes Excuses
The third senior is versatile forward Denykco Bowles (Nassau, Bahamas). The 6-6 Bowles saw time last year as a forward and center for the team.
"I think this year we will try and keep him at one spot, with the understanding that he has experience elsewhere," Forrester said. "I think for the most part we're going to keep him as a five instead of a four." Forrester believes one of Bowles' best assets is his unselfishness.
"When you talk about a true team player, you're talking about Denykco Bowles," he said. "He never cares about how many minutes he gets. When he is not on the floor he's our biggest cheerleader.
"Here's a guy that never makes excuses," Forrester continued. "I think he is the best team player I have ever seen."
Working Like He's Hungry
The Cougars roster features four juniors, including returners Nikola Bundalo (Belgrade, Serbia) and Dane Church (Charleston). Bundalo brings the most experience of the pair, playing in all 58 games since beginning his college career. He started 28 of 30 contests as a sophomore last year.
"He's doing great so far," Forrester said of the 6-10 Bundalo. "Nikola is now working on dominating. He's got a great determination as far as being a difference-maker inside."
Forrester said Bundalo, who led the team as a sophomore with 145 total rebounds, is another player who is working like he's hungry.
"He is not working like a guy who was a starter last year," he said. "Instead he is working like a guy fighting for a job. I am really happy with the way he is working."
Church, a walk-on for the Cougar program, is beginning his third season with Forrester, and he believes that the team will benefit from Church's experience.
"I expect him to help our younger guys be on the same page as the rest of the team," he said. "He knows our program and our philosophy, and he will help get that across to the other guys."
The other two juniors are both junior college transfers. Dobrivoje Mavrak (Toronto, Ont.) comes to SIUE from Palm Beach Community College. Cody Rincker (Strasburg), a walk-on, is a transfer from Lincoln Land Community College.
Forrester believes Mavrak is a player that will be versatile, despite his size.
"Dob is going to add size, yes," Forrester said of his 6-9 center. "But he runs the floor well, and he is a really good perimeter shooter. And he is going to help us add rebounding."
Willing to Learn
Forrester likes the way Mavrak is willing to learn.
"He is another newcomer who is a sponge," he said. "He is really soaking things up as we tell him."
Rincker is another player who Forrester said will be successful because of his approach.
"He's not making any excuses based on whether he is going to play or not," Forrester said. "He is a great worker and is doing a great job so far."
The Cougars will have three other sophomores on the roster -- Kevin Stineman (Buffalo Grove), David Boarden (Gary, Ind.) and Anthony Mitchell (East St. Louis). All three have Division I experience, yet only one (Stineman) has seen time in a game in a Cougars' uniform. Boarden transferred to SIUE from Detroit Mercy and sat out last season due to transfer rules. Mitchell joins the Cougars after spending the 2007-08 season at Saint Louis University. Mitchell sat out last year at Highland Community College.
Forrester said Stineman, who played in all 30 games as a freshman, personifies the season's overriding theme.
"He is one of the toughest guys on our team and one of the toughest guys I have been around," Forrester said of the 6-0 guard. "We're going to count on him to get that toughness to translate to our guys." Forrester believes Stineman will be integral, despite his young age.
"I think he has matured as far as his approach to the game," he said. "I am going to count on Kevin to be a leader, even though he is only a sophomore and not one of our captains."
Plays Multiple Positions
Boarden is going to bring versatility to the team, according to Forrester.
"He can play multiple positions," he said. "He can be a three or four. David can also be a good defender when it's all said and done."
Forrester believes the 6-4 Boarden, like Mavrak, can help the team on the boards.
"I thought rebounding was one of our biggest weaknesses last year," Forrester said. "(David) is going to help us become a better rebounding team."
The 6-4 Mitchell will be called on to add a facet of the game Forrester said was missing from the team last season.
"With his athletic ability and his physical presence, he's going to add a dimension I don't think we had last year," Forrester said.
Mitchell played in eight games as a freshman at SLU. Forrester said that Mitchell's Division I experience will benefit the entire team.
"Being at SLU, under Coach Majerus, for a year will help," he said. "He knows how to and will be able to help the program and our players get ready to compete at a high level."
Three freshmen round out the 2009-10 men's basketball team. Redshirt freshmen Desmond Young (Chicago) returns for the Cougars, and will be joined by LeShaun Murphy (Sachse, Texas) and Zeke Schneider (Metamora).
Forrester said there is no guarantee of playing time for Young, but that it doesn't matter.
"Here's a guy who doesn't know if he is going to play in games or not," Forrester said. "But he comes every day to compete and help us in practice."
Forrester believes both Murphy, a guard, and Schneider, need time to develop, but both will be strong players.
"As a freshman he doesn't know quite yet what it takes to play at the Division I level," Forrester said of the 6-1 Murphy. "But I love the way he is approaching things right now."
"Zeke does everything you ask of him," Forrester said of the 6-9 forward/center. "I think he is going to be a very good player down the road. People are going to love Zeke Schneider."
While Forrester admits he doesn't yet know how many wins this year's team will have, he believes success will be measured in other ways.
"We are going to be a team of togetherness," he continued. "We will play as a team and compete as a team. If we do that, we'll be fine."
"Obviously we are going to lose some games," Forrester continued. "But everything we do, we will do as a team."