EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. - Building an Ohio Valley Conference team from the ground up, SIUE men's basketball Head Coach Lennox Forrester has seen the peaks and valleys that go with establishing an NCAA Division I program.
The SIUE men's team advanced to the OVC Championship for the first time during the 2013-14 season and has clearly set the expectation to be back for the 2014-15 season. After losing in the 2014 OVC Tournament, Forrester said he saw a sense of urgency and will to work hard to make sure the Cougars advance farther in 2015.
"That's been the whole attitude last spring, in the summer, and into this fall," said Forrester.
Most OVC coaches would agree that a strong backcourt lays the foundation for a very good team. With Donivine Stewart (Peoria, Illinois) and Kris Davis (Detroit, Michigan) returning for the Cougars, SIUE looks to have one of the better backcourts in the league.
Stewart was named to the OVC All-Newcomer team last season after leading the team in scoring with a 12.2 scoring average. The Cougar junior point guard led SIUE with 139 assists, the most in a season in the Division I era and the sixth most all-time. Only four other players in SIUE men's basketball history have recorded more than 130 assists in a season.
Davis, a senior, needs 94 points to become the 15th player in school history to record 1,000 career points. He has hit 132 three-pointers for the Cougars over his first three seasons, good enough for fourth all-time at SIUE.
"Any time you have experienced guys who handle the basketball and are seasoned, it helps a lot knowing they know where to go and what to do defensively," Forrester said.
Stewart and Davis will have plenty of help in the backcourt. C.J. Carr (Rock Island, Illinois), a 5-foot, 7-inch freshman, was an All-State player last season at Rock Island High School. Michael Messer (Wildwood, Missouri) was limited to 18 games last season but is set to return for the 2014-15 season. Maurice Wiltz (Houston, Texas), another senior guard, has shown he has range from beyond the arc. He was second in the OVC last season with a .453 three-point percentage.
"Any time you have guards who are mature and have great experience, it is a cause for optimism," said Forrester.
Both players at the center position return. Keaton Jackson (Vancouver, Washington) and Grant Fiorentinos (Cape Town, South Africa), both 6-10, each have a year of experience under their belts. Jackson led the OVC as he shot 75.6 percent from the field last season in conference games and averaged 10.6 points per game. Fiorentinos averaged 1.5 points per game in 24 contests last season.
The Cougars also have senior swingman Rozell Nunn (Kansas City, Kansas) who finished fourth in scoring last season at 8.7 per contest. He also was second on the team in rebounds per game (4.1) and field goal percentage (.480).
The front line has four new faces for the 2014-15 season with two freshmen and two transfers.
Kennan Simmons (Michigan City, Indiana) and Jalen Henry (Springfield, Illinois) hope to help the Cougars right away. Simmons, a 6-6 forward, averaged 21.1 points per game as a senior at Michigan City High School and earned All-State honors. Henry, a 6-8 forward, nearly averaged a double-double his senior season at Springfield Southeast High School and was tabbed All-State.
Michael Chandler (Columbus, Georgia) and Jake Newton (Terre Haute, Indiana) both have two years of eligibility at SIUE. The 6-8 Chandler is a natural shot-blocker and ranked second nationally among junior college teams at Hill College with 5.0 blocks per game. Newton, a 6-6 forward, was an All-Conference pick last season at Lincoln Trail Community College after averaging 11.2 points and 4.0 rebounds per game.
"The five newcomers we have fit into our program well. As the season progresses, you'll see their roles develop," Forrester said.