SU men seeking more chemistry this hoops season

Shenandoah University guard Aaron Patterson goes up for a layup during a game last season. The Hornets are looking to improve on last year's four-win campaign in 2015-16. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s men’s basketball team is ready for a clean slate.

Off-court problems and poor team chemistry derailed much of what the Hornets had hoped to accomplish last season, as SU stumbled to a 4-22 overall record and a last-place finish in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference just one year after winning 12 games, the most for the program since the 2007-08 season.

Heading into the 2015-16 season – which begins Friday with a 7 p.m. exhibition game at Division I Bucknell University – Shenandoah is ready to learn from the experience and not repeat that same fate.

“I think the biggest thing that we all took, coaches and players alike, is that you can’t underestimate the value of chemistry. We didn’t have good team chemistry last year,” said Rob Pryor, who on Wednesday enters his fifth season as the Hornets’ head coach. “But when you have guys who are doing all the right things off the court, in the classroom and enjoy being around each other, then the ceiling or the level of success that you can have is high. I think that’s what we have this year.”

Pryor said he considers the current group of Hornets the best he’s had in terms of going about things the right way off the court and in the classroom, a team trait that centers around the leadership of returning starters Malcolm Clark, Aaron Patterson and Antwan Pittman.

That trio, in addition to the intangible leadership qualities, brings a nice dose of experience back to the Hornets this season. Clark (14.2 points, 4.9 rebounds per game), Patterson (10 points per game) and Pittman (8.2 points, 4.9 rebounds per game) were three of SU’s top scorers last year from a team that ranked in the middle of the conference pack in scoring offense (70.2 points per game).

“We’ve got a lot of talent,” said Patterson, a junior. “The best thing about that is everybody’s together.”

The Hornets (3-13 in ODAC last season) will continue to run its Princeton-style offense, although Pryor said SU’s coaching staff has gone “simpler” in the offense’s design in order to score quicker, with an added emphasis on driving to the basket. Part of that switch has been spurred on by the new NCAA rule that has shortened the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds.

“We’ve gotta get into our offense quicker this year,” said Patterson, who will serve primarily as the Hornets’ second guard this winter while also playing some point guard. “Another thing, we’ve got a lot of shooters, so in order to get our shooters open we’re gonna have to drive to the basket. We’ve got a lot of people that have the talent to get to the rack, so once we get to the rack we can make easy plays.”

Pryor said Clark, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound forward, is “probably the best slasher in the entire ODAC,” while also holding high praise for junior point guard E.J. Baltimore, a transfer from fellow ODAC school Eastern Mennonite University who Pryor said does a great job driving to the basket and getting his teammates involved.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Pryor said of Baltimore. “He’s gonna be starting at point guard for us and his leadership and his communication abilities are the best of anyone I’ve ever coached since I’ve been here. And to have that at the point guard position is an awesome thing.”

One of the Hornets’ biggest strengths this season, Pryor said, should be shooting – the team’s greatest weakness in Pryor’s previous four seasons, he noted – and the head coach added that SU should be strong inside with 6-foot-7 centers Thomas Walker and Gabriel Gonzalez. Pryor said Walker, a junior college transfer from California, is the “best low-post scorer we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

Defensively, Pryor said the Hornets will show multiple looks this season while relying on the energy of Clark (team-high 2.0 steals per game last season), Patterson and Pittman. Last year the Hornets allowed 79.2 points per game, the second-worst mark in the ODAC.

“Last year we were pretty much pressure man-to-man and that didn’t suit us as well as I would like,” Pryor said. “But I think this year with the rule changes – there’s more emphasis on hand-checking and contact – you’ll see probably more zone from us than you’ve seen in the past.”

Shenandoah has suffered through seven straight losing seasons and has won more than five games just once in the last five seasons, winning 12 games during the 2013-14 campaign.

The Hornets play their first official game Sunday with a 2 p.m. home contest against John Jay College.

SU, which was ousted in the first round of the ODAC tournament last season, was picked to finish 11th (out of 12 teams) in the conference’s preseason coaches poll.

“Our big goal is to get to Salem. We wanna get to Salem,” Pryor said, referring to the location of the ODAC tournament quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. “We feel like a couple years ago we had an unbelievable opportunity to get there and it didn’t quite go our way. But we feel like we have the experience, the talent and the chemistry to get there and once you get there anything can happen. That’s what we’ve been talking about. And it would be the first time we’ve ever been there.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com