The big men of Savannah State’s frontcourt rotated taking the ball out at the baseline and threw it across court before taking off in a sprint. Once past midcourt, they had to be ready to catch a pass in transition and look for an open shooter or get the ball moving around the perimeter.
After half an hour of this on Wednesday, Savannah State men’s basketball coach Horace Broadnax made his players run sprints from sideline to sideline — preparation for what this season will be like, whether they have to get back quickly on defense or get out in transition after forcing a turnover.
With the Tigers constantly sprinting up and down the court, the pace may feel more like a soccer game.
This is just the kind of basketball that’s right in Jahlin Smith’s wheelhouse.
The 6-foot-7 junior transfer became accustomed to that style of play at South Carolina-Salkehatchie. He admitted he came into this season a little out of shape, so the intensity of Broadnax’s practices was a tough adjustment.
But once he made it?
“At first, I wasn’t too hot with it. But now I love it,” Smith said.
“At my last school, all I did was run. I was a kid with a motor. It’s all good with me. It’s pretty much the same for me, position wise. I just run from free-throw line to free-throw line.”
SSU junior guard Dexter McClanahan said Wednesday’s practice — two days before today’s season opener at Cincinnati — was lighter on running than usual.
“Not even close,” McClanahan said. “We run way more than this.”
Savannah State surprised its opponents with it’s fun-and-run offense last season, averaging 85.7 points per game. No one expected it because the year before that, the Tigers were one of the top defensive teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Now the secret’s out, and Broadnax has branded his up-tempo offense as his team’s identity.
“It’s our system,” McClanahan said. “We’re going to run it. The only difference is now teams know. We’re going to run up and down the court, and we’re going to shoot.”
The big question entering the 2017-18 season for the Tigers is who will run the system and push the ball up the floor. After leading the team at point guard for two seasons, Troyce Manassa — the Tigers’ top scorer from last season at 16.9 points per game — is gone.
Broadnax said those points can be replaced by a handful of newcomers, but he’s not so sure about the leadership Manassa displayed.
“I see his presence being missed already just based on his leadership on and off the court,” Broadnax said. “I think that left a huge void. I think replacing his numbers might be easier than replacing his leadership because during the season you’ve got ups and downs, highs and lows, and kids have to navigate through that. You need that individual who will help you perform.”
McClanahan, who was second on the team in scoring last season at 16.4 ppg, said he’s trying to step into Manassa’s shoes.
“I feel like I’m supposed to be a leader on this team,” McClanahan said. “I’ve been here three years now, so I’ve learned to know what coach wants and how he wants us to play.”
But at 6-foot-5, McClanhan is most useful as a wing player, meaning someone else will have to fill in at point guard who will fit Broadnax’s system.
He’s the smallest player on the team, but Georgia Highlands transfer Ty’Lik Evans can do just that. With his size and speed, Evans can be tough to guard in transition, so much so that McClanahan said he feels a little sorry for his opponents.
“I like to call him the little annoying guard,” McClanahan said. “He’s little, and he’s all over the place. I’m glad he chose to come here out of all the schools he could’ve went to.”
No more sanctions
Savannah State has spent the past two seasons knowing their postseason fate before the season began. Two years ago, NCAA sanctions banned the Tigers from the MEAC tournament, and last season they were ineligible for any invitational postseason tournament, even though they made a strong 10-6 run in conference play.
This season, all sanctions have been lifted, but Broadnax said that adds a little stress to expectations for a team that returns only three of its top nine scorers from a season ago.
“Kids want to play basketball,” Broadnax said “Obviously, you want to play for something. When I say it’s a little more stressful, it’s because you’re playing for something. There wasn’t any pressure last year because you knew you weren’t going to the tournament. Now we’ve just got to try to work through that.”
Filling more voids
SSU will see several new faces — mostly transfers — in the lineup and off the bench this season after filling the void of some unexpected departures.
Broadnax said 6-foot-7 forward Robert Kelly Jr., who averaged 9.7 ppg last season as a freshman, transferred to South Alabama, and guard Kamil Williams also transferred.
“At our level, sometimes freshmen, if they don’t produce right away, they can end up somewhere or as coaches, you want to develop freshmen, you want those guys to be in the program for four years,” Broadnax said. “You can really get dividends out of them their junior and senior years. But we’re the type of program where you can’t win with freshmen.”
Senior Joshua Floyd, who averaged 7.5 points last season, announced Thursday on his Twitter handle he intends to redshirt this season and transfer to another school next year.