Although the Southeast Missouri State men's basketball team more than doubled its win total from last year, Dickey Nutt expected better results from his first season as the Redhawks' coach.
But just days after the campaign ended with Saturday's 71-68 overtime loss to Austin Peay, Nutt is far from discouraged as he moves forward in trying to rebuild Southeast's struggling program.
"I have to be honest with you. My expectations were much higher than what we achieved and for that I'm disappointed," Nutt said Monday while on his way to Dallas for a recruiting trip. "I felt we could come in and be closer to .500.
"But I really feel good about what we can be in the next few years. We have a lot to sell here. I personally feel this is the best job in the conference. We've got one of the best facilities, I feel like Cape Girardeau is the No. 1 city, I feel like our campus is as good if not better as anybody in the league. I'm very excited about the future."
This season's Redhawks, despite a rugged nonconference schedule and not having top recruit Leon Powell due to a knee injury suffered before practice started, showed early flashes of promise.
But some key injuries contributed to holding the Redhawks back and they lost their last eight games overall, along with dropping their final 10 OVC contests. Southeast finished 7-23 and a ninth-place 3-15 in the 10-team OVC.
"We let some games slip away. We didn't take advantage of some opportunities we had," said Nutt, whose squad lost two OVC games in overtime and three others by three points. "We had a brutal schedule and there's nobody to blame but me. I chose to do that. I felt we really needed to get some regional teams of interest in here and try to gain the support of our fans, and I think we did that."
Given the late start Nutt got on recruiting -- he wound up with only four returning players so he basically had to construct a new roster -- Southeast's overall talent level was not up to par with most teams in the OVC. But rarely did Nutt question his players' heart.
"I'm disappointed with seven wins, even though it might have been an improvement, but I am very proud of our players and the way they hung in there," Nutt said. "I credit our players for really giving a lot of effort because I really thought they played hard. I was also very proud of the character of our players."
Southeast was playing some of its best basketball during the early part of the OVC schedule before junior forward Cameron Butler and freshman point guard Lucas Nutt suffered injuries.
Butler, Southeast's top inside player, missed eight games with a foot problem and was at significantly less than full strength when he returned.
Butler was third on the squad in scoring and second in rebounding with averages of 9 points and 5.3 boards, while leading in blocked shots with 21. He scored 18 points in the season finale.
"We saw a glimpse of what Cameron could do in that last game," Dickey Nutt said. "We had some inside presence, and he was still only at about 50 percent."
Lucas Nutt, a walk-on and the coach's son, was Southeast's only true point guard. He was leading the OVC in assist-to-turnover ratio when he suffered a broken foot that ended his season after he played in only nine games.
"When Cameron and Lucas went out, that really changed the makeup of our team," Dickey Nutt said. "As I said 100 times, we needed to have all our bullets to be competitive and have a chance to win. Those injuries made it tough for us."
Among the individual highlights for Southeast was the emergence of freshman guard Marland Smith, who was solid most of the season and surged toward the end.
Smith finished as the Redhawks' leading scorer with a 10.8 average. He also led in 3-pointers made with 63 and in steals with 28, while ranking second in assists with 44.
Smith is the OVC's No. 19 scorer, including No. 3 among the league's freshmen. He scored at least 18 points in each of the last four games, including performances of 30 and 28.
"Marland had a very good freshman year and he's only going to get better," Nutt said. "I believe he was one of the best freshman in the league."
In addition to Smith and Nutt, freshmen guards Derek Thompson and LaQuentin Miles received extensive playing time. Thompson wound up as Southeast's No. five scorer with an 8.4 average and was second in made 3-pointers with 47.
Junior college transfer guard Anthony Allison was the Redhawks' only other double-figure scorer besides Smith. He averaged 10.1 points and leads the OVC in 3-point field-goal percentage at 46.8 (36 of 77).
Junior college transfer guard Sam Pearson, who played through a foot problem much of the season, was Southeast's No. 4 scorer with an 8.8 average and led in assists with 80.
Among other players eligible to return, junior forward Jajuan Maxwell was the most productive as he averaged 5.4 points.
Southeast had just three seniors, with forward LaMont Russell the most significant loss after he led Southeast in rebounding with a 6.8 average that ranks fourth in the OVC.
As much as Nutt appreciated his players' effort, he knows the roster must be upgraded significantly for Southeast to take a much bigger leap forward next year and in the seasons to follow.
"It's all about recruiting," Nutt said. "Recruiting is a two- and three-year process, it's not a two- and three-week process."
Southeast signed one player early, 6-foot-9 junior college forward Waylon Jones from Albany Tech Community College in Albany, Ga.
Jones missed his entire sophomore season with a stress fracture, meaning he will have three years of eligibility with the Redhawks.
Southeast has only two more available scholarships, although in most programs not all players with eligibility return so there is the chance some more scholarships could become available.
Nutt is targeting several more inside players for the spring signing period that begins in mid-April as a lack of inside size and strength hampered Southeast this season.
"I think first and foremost you have to have some size. We struggled against bigger and stronger front lines," Nutt said. "But I think we need [help at] every position. We have to build and get stronger at every position.
"I'll just say this. We're not going to turn down any good players. We're in on a lot of good players. My staff has done a good job identifying some very good players. The next six weeks will be [recruiting] from daylight to dark. We'll see a player or two every day."
Although he won't count as a new recruit, that's basically what Nutt considers Powell, the heralded forward who turned down scholarship offers from high-profile programs coming out of junior college before signing with Southeast. Powell has two seasons of eligibility left.
"I think he has to be our No. 1 recruit," Nutt said. "We put him through an unbelievable schedule every day to get him back to healthy.
"That's one recruit we already have on the dotted line. He's already been here."
Nutt said the atmosphere at the Show Me Center for Saturday's final game was a good way to go into the offseason, even though Southeast lost.
The Show Me Sellout promotion drew 5,515 fans, the largest crowd to see the Redhawks at home since the 2004-05 campaign.
"That was a great way to finish up, the tremendous support we got," Nutt said. "We've got great fans who are hungry for a good basketball program. I'm excited about our future."