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Season PREVIEW: Deeper Cougars Ready for 2013-14 Campaign

Ray Lester
Ray Lester

Game Notes for Arkansas game

SIUE (0-0) at
Arkansas (0-0)
Fri., Nov. 8, 7 p.m.
Fayetteville, Ark.

Radio: 88.7 FM WSIE
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EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – In the team huddle SIUE men's basketball used to chant 'Team together'. They don't chant that anymore because they don't have to. SIUE Head Coach Lennox Forrester said they're practicing what they (used to) preach.

"The whole attitude is all about team," the seventh-year head coach said. "It's not about them.

"We went so far as to take the names off the backs of our jerseys," Forrester continued. "We're a team and not a bunch of individuals."

According to Forrester, depth also is an asset to the 2013-14 Cougars, who open the season with a 7 p.m. contest Friday at Arkansas, of the SEC.

"We have quality depth," Forrester said. "If we stay healthy we have a better, deeper team than we have had at any point in our time here at Division I."

That depth was on display Monday in a 97-61 exhibition win over Division III Greenville. Five players scored in double figures, while eight players scored at least five points. Eight players played at least 15 minutes, and the Cougars' received a staggering 75 points off the bench.

Seniors Tim Johnson (Harvey, Ill.) and Ray Lester (Chicago) joined juniors Kris Davis (Detroit), Michael Messer (Wildwood, Mo.), and redshirt sophomore Donivine Stewart (Peoria, Ill.) in Monday's starting five. All but Stewart have played a game with the Cougars. Stewart transferred from Bradley and was with the team last season but did not play a game due to NCAA transfer rules. Forrester admitted he isn't set on a lineup just yet.

"We told our guys to not worrying about starting," Forrester said following the win. "The guys on the bench will have to be ready to go because I want a well-balanced team." 

Forrester believes Johnson, who is in his second year with the team after transferring from George Washington, will be dangerous because of his athleticism and versatility.

"He's long and so athletic," Forrester said. "He can score from anywhere on the floor, whether it's off the rebound, mid-range, or from three-point range. He can cause havoc."

Forrester said Lester, also in his second season with SIUE, has improved.

"He is our best post-sealer. He is physical on the boards, and he has improved skill-wise," said Forrester.

Stewart has been tabbed as the likely point guard for the Cougars.

"He's a pass-first point guard who makes guys around him better," Forrester said. "He's a great extension of a head coach. He does a tremendous job leading."

Forrester said Davis will be helped by moving more regularly to the two-guard position.

"He's playing his true position, which is the two guard," Forrester said. "The pressure of having to push the ball up the floor and find the open guy is off."

Forrester believes Messer, a redshirt junior, is improved and has benefitted from his time at SIUE.

"He's got great experience in his fourth year now," Forrester said of Messer. "He's a better shooter, a better passer, and a better defender. He has improved in all aspects of the game since he's been here."

Transfers Christian Salecich (Gold Coast, Australia) and Keaton Jackson (Vancouver, Wash.) are likely candidates for starts as well.

Salecich, who will play only one season with SIUE, came to the Cougars from Division II Missouri Southern State but previously spent two seasons at Saint Louis.

"He is such an intelligent basketball player," Forrester said. "He is going to be a great addition because of his experience and knowledge of the game."

Jackson comes to SIUE from Missouri State-West Plains. The 6-foot, 10-inch center scored a game-high 23 points Monday on 11-of-15 shooting, while also adding two blocks.

"He's long, athletic and can run like a deer," Forrester said of Jackson. "He is a very skilled shot-blocker."

Grant Fiorentinos (Cape Town, South Africa), who sat out last season after transferring from Tulane, will provide added depth at the center position. Forrester said at 6-10, 225 pounds, Fiorentinos is a nice addition.

"He is a big target out there," Forrester said. "He can score with his back to the basket, and he can step out and score. He also is a great positional defender."

Maurice Wiltz (Houston, Texas) added 20 points in the exhibition win, and Forrester believes having Wiltz, who played in just eight games last year because of injury, healthy for a full season will be key for SIUE.

"He is a very good defensive player. He has great toughness. He'll be first on the floor, taking charges," Forrester said. "He's going to do all the dirty work, but he also is a good scorer."

Cameron Craig (Coffeyville, Kan.) and Rozell Nunn (Kansas City, Kan.) each join the Cougars for their first year after stints at successful junior colleges.

Craig likely will play the point guard position and showed his skill in Monday's win with seven assists off the bench.

"He is a tough guard, a good defender," Forrester said. "The key for him will be how fast he can adjust to our system."

Nunn will probably play the power forward position, but Forrester said he is skilled enough to play elsewhere.

"He can guard the perimeter, and he can guard a five," Forrester said. "He scraps. He's a junkyard dog."

Both players are used to winning. Craig comes from a Coffeyville Community College program that was 32-3 a season ago, while Nunn made 33 starts for Hutchinson Community College, which currently is ranked No. 5 in the National Junior College Athletic Association poll.

"Since they are coming from a winning background and a winning tradition they know what it takes to win," Forrester said. "The thought process is, 'this is what we have to do to win.' "

The Cougars added a pair of local walk-on players to bolster the team. Keaton Scheer (Germantown, Ill.) and Akintoye Okunrinboye (Florissant, Mo.) both joined the team in October.

Okunrinboye is not eligible for game participation, and Forrester said the addition of Scheer has been positive.

"He is a young man with a great attitude," Forrester said. "He contirbutes to practice and helps us get better as a team."

Forrester said likes his nonconference schedule, which includes games against 12 teams from 10 different conferences. SIUE will play host to Saint Louis, of the Atlantic 10, as well as meet SIU Carbondale and Loyola, of the Missouri Valley Conference, on the road.

"We want to throw as many scenarios at the guys as we can," he said.

A November trip to the west coast includes a tournament at Portland State as well as a matchup with Oregon State of the Pac-12 Conference. The tournament will feature three games in three days. While also providing the tournament-type schedule and atmosphere, Forrester believes there is another advantage to the early trip.

"We have so many new guys, and we want them gelling as soon as possible with a lot of games," Forrester said. "With the tournament you play some neutral court games, and if you win, even though it is neutral court, you're still winning on the road."

Forrester said ultimately the nonconference schedule will prepare his team for the Ohio Valley Conference schedule. Forrester believes his team is motivated.

"To come so close last year (within a game) of getting into the conference tournament will be a motivating factor for us this year," he said. "It's not impossible if we can treat every single game as the most important game on the schedule."

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