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Southeast men's basketball team to begin practice Friday
The Southeast Missouri State men's basketball team took its biggest jump yet under coach Dickey Nutt during his third season last year.
Nutt is optimistic about another leap forward as the Redhawks begin official practice for the 2012-13 season Friday.
"We are very excited," Nutt said. "We think we can take another step forward. I think we have a lot of the pieces to the puzzle. We've got a good nucleus of experience."
Southeast went 15-16 overall and 9-7 in Ohio Valley Conference play last year. The Redhawks recorded their most victories since the 2004-05 team also won 15 games, and their fourth-place OVC tie was their highest conference finish since the 1999-2000 NCAA tournament squad earned a share of the regular-season championship.
The Redhawks also posted OVC tournament wins in consecutive years for only the second time. The other time came during the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 seasons when Southeast reached the finals both campaigns.
"We are starting to see a little bit of results," Nutt said. "Not as quick as I would like, naturally, but I do feel like we have made some good strides."
Nutt inherited a program saddled with NCAA probation and coming off a 3-27 campaign that featured a winless OVC season.
Southeast won seven games, including three OVC contests, during Nutt's first year. The Redhawks improved to 10 wins the following season, including six OVC triumphs, and earned their first OVC tournament victory since 2004-05.
That led to last year's five-victory improvement and Southeast's first winning conference record since 2004-05.
Now the Redhawks are shooting higher as they return a good portion of their key players from last season.
"I feel like we have put ourselves in a position to turn the corner. We see the corner, but we haven't turned the corner," Nutt said. "I thought we had a real good finish last year, especially with our underclassmen, and I thought they did a good job of carrying that over into the summer and our [preseason] workouts. They have all improved a lot, gotten bigger and stronger."
Southeast's top returning player is junior forward Tyler Stone, who led the Redhawks in scoring and rebounding last year. Stone earned second-team all-OVC honors and arguably was the league's top newcomer after transferring from Missouri.
Stone averaged 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds to rank ninth and third in the conference, respectively. He also was fifth in blocks (34) and sixth in field-goal percentage (53.0).
"We feel he's one of the best players in the league. He's our go-to guy," Nutt said. "He's gotten bigger and stronger. He's really worked on his game."
Senior guard Marland Smith (12.3 ppg) was Southeast's second-leading scorer and top 3-point shooter. He led the Redhawks with 63 baskets from beyond the arc and 39.9-percent accuracy that ranked sixth in the OVC. He also was first on the squad with 28 steals and third with 76 assists.
Senior guards Nick Niemczyk (9.2 ppg) and Corey Wilford (6.6 ppg) both hit 36.8 percent of their 3-point attempts. Niemczyk made 46 and Wilford connected on 32.
Junior point guard Lucas Nutt (5.1 ppg) was second on the Redhawks in assists and eighth in the OVC with 96. He committed just 43 turnovers to lead the league in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Junior forward Michael Porter (4.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg) came on strong toward the end of the season. He continued to round into form after being plagued by various injuries in recent years that restricted his conditioning, although he currently is being slowed by a hip injury.
"I feel like those guys have really worked hard and gotten a lot better," Dickey Nutt said. "They played well for us last year, and we're looking for bigger things from them this season."
Nutt expects sophomore forward Nino Johnson (2.2 ppg, 1.9 rpg) to take on a much more prominent role after he showed flashes of his potential in limited playing time as a true freshman.
"You'll see a guy 15 pounds heavier and an inch taller," coach Nutt said about Johnson, who is about 6 foot 9 and 230 pounds. "He's pushing to be one of the best players on our team. He's so big, so strong, so talented. He's really maturing in so many areas of his life."
Also expected to take on a major role is junior guard A.J. Jones, who had two strong junior college seasons before enrolling at Southeast last fall.
Under NCAA regulations, Jones had to pay his own way at Southeast last year and could not practice with the team because he did not graduate from his junior college.
"I think he's the difference in our team this year," Nutt said about the 6-4, 200-pound Jones. "His penetration, he can get to the basket, he can hit his free throws. He's probably going to be our best defender on the perimeter."
Nutt also is excited about the potential of redshirt freshman forward Jacob Tolbert, a former Notre Dame Regional High School standout who joined the program as a walk-on after Christmas last year and practiced with the squad.
"He has really improved. Look for him to get minutes," Nutt said.
Also in the mix for playing time are two true freshmen who graduated from De Soto (Mo.) High School: combo guard Jared White and 6-9, 250-pound center Colin Ferguson.
A third true freshman, point guard C.J. Reese, is not eligible the first semester and not in school, but Nutt expects Reese to be eligible after the first semester ends Dec. 14.
"I feel like everything is in place," Nutt said. "Our depth is not exactly where we want it to be, but the talent level is there. The work ethic is there."