SE launches season tonight

Friday, November 16, 2001

For a basketball team in transition, the Birmingham Southern College Panthers are doing quite well.

The Panthers, one of the nation's best NAIA squads in the 1990s, have joined many other lower-level programs around the country in making the jump to NCAA Division I.

And last season, in just its second year under the NCAA's mandatory transition period, BSC went 17-9, including an 8-8 mark against Division I competition. Among the Panthers' Division I victims was Big 12 Conference member Texas A&M, which fell by 20 points on its home floor.

"We did okay (last year). We were able to stick our heads up every now and then and have some nice wins," said BSC coach Duane Reboul. "But that was last year. We know things are going to get a lot tougher this year."

That's because BSC, which visits Southeast Missouri State University tonight in the season opener for both squads, will play a full Division I schedule this year, with many of the games against Big South Conference members as it prepares to join that league.

"It's going to be a big challenge for us," said Reboul, who led the Panthers to NAIA national titles in 1991 and 1995 and has a 315-71 record in 12 seasons at BSC. "But I felt it (moving up to Division I) was the right thing to do for the program and the entire college, even though we knew it would be difficult."

Top scorers graduate

Making the challenge even more daunting this year is the fact the Panthers lost their top three scorers and rebounders from last season's squad.

But the Panthers -- unlike Southeast -- do return a decent amount of experience, particularly in their perimeter game.

BSC, which features a full-court, man-to-man defense, has both of last season's starting guards back in 5-foot-10 senior point Rashard Willie and 6-foot senior T.R. Reed. Willie averaged 9.5 points and 4.8 assists per game last year while hitting 47 3-pointers. Reed averaged nine points a contest last season and shot 43 percent from 3-point range.

Another returning backcourt performer, 6-3 senior Corey Watkins, will also be in tonight's lineup to give the Panthers a three-guard look. Watkins averaged 8.7 points per game last season while hitting nearly 47 percent of his 3-point attempts.

"We've got some experienced perimeter players but we're young at our inside positions," Reboul said. "For us to be successful, our young players up front will have to come through."

One of the Panthers' frontcourt starters is slated to be returning player Michael Anspach, a 6-7 senior who averaged 4.2 points per game in limited action a year ago.

And at center will be an intriguing prospect in 6-11, 210-pound redshirt freshman Shema Mbyirukira, who scored 26 points and grabbed 13 rebounds during the Panthers' only exhibition game, a 97-86 victory over Vasda USA. Mbyirukira hit 11 of 16 shots from the field, including three of four 3-pointers.

"He played well in the exhibition game, but he's a freshman and he'll be inconsistent because freshmen are like that," said Reboul.

Also figuring to see plenty of action tonight is 6-11, 255-pound sophomore center Michael Bilostinnyi, a native of Germany who averaged four points per game last year.

Among several newcomers for the Panthers, the most highly touted is athletic 6-7 forward Josiah James, a transfer from Bacone (Okla.) Community College.

"They're a good basketball team," said Southeast coach Gary Garner. "All we have is a tape from last year and they're missing three really good players, but they have all their perimeter kids back and their big freshman center put up great numbers in their exhibition game."

With the Indians so shorthanded -- they will have only six scholarship players available tonight due to various reasons -- Garner knows the odds are probably not in his team's favor.

"It's going to be a real challenge for us," he said.

But Reboul looks at tonight's contest the same way, even considering the Indians' current situation.

"I know the tradition they have and coach Garner is such an excellent coach," he said, then added with a laugh. "We need every break we can get. We're probably a good opener for them."

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