Clarksville, Ark.-There is a new sense of urgency for Head Men's Basketball Coach Doug Boxell as he enters year two at the collegiate level.
It was a roller coaster ride last season for Boxell, who made the transition to the NCAA after a successful high school career. The Eagles upset Mary Hardin-Baylor, the eventual conference champion, early in the season, and started the conference slate 4-0. In the second half of the year, the Eagles dropped a heartbreaker to nationally-ranked Texas-Dallas on a last second tip-in. Ozarks also produced the American Southwest Conference East Division Player of the Year. But the Eagles finished the season losing ten of their final 11 games and ended the year 8-16 overall.
“It seemed like a lot of games came down to the last two minutes and we weren’t able to finish,” said Boxell. “I hope this team can grow and finish those type of games. If you are good enough to win those type of games, you are good enough to make the conference tournament. There is no reason we can’t make that happen here. There are a lot of intangibles that go into that. It takes chemistry and developing a family-like atmosphere. I feel like if we will do those things you don’t see on paper, we can have that special team.”
Boxell must replace the division Player of the Year and two-year starter Colby Woolverton, who is expected to receive a medical redshirt. The Eagles do return three starters and Boxell brought in another large recruiting class, including three transfers that will help fill the void.
“Our new players give us a little bit of renewed hope,” said Boxell. “We are headed in the right direction, we just need to keep going. I think our three transfers will help us. On paper we are young. We did a better job getting the type of student-athlete that fits Ozarks. We probably had a lot more questions going into last year versus this year. I think we are deeper this year. We have to do a better job sharing the ball and playing as a team. I think having a knowledge how we want to play will offset some of the individual talent we lost.”
One concern for the veteran coach is the lack of size on the team. The Eagles boast just two players 6-foot-6 or taller. Junior center Nate Miller is listed at 6-foot-7 while sophomore Dylan Ballard is listed at 6-foot-6. Miller and Ballard will be joined on the inside by Marcus Bobb, a 6-foot-4 29-year-old transfer. Bobb, who played for Boxell at Ponder (Texas) High School, has the ability to hit shots from the perimeter.
"Marcus is a nice player and adds some stability to the team,” said Boxell. “He understands how to play the game. Dylan is a good scorer and Nate is back. One of our problems is the fact that we don’t have enough strength to keep others from getting to the basket. We need to be tough enough to block out and get charges. I think dealing with the lack of size you better be blocking out. We will have to technique rebound. We have to do it.”
Senior guard Andre Williams is expected to fill the role as team leader. Williams is the top scorer back after averaging 11.0 points per game. Williams drilled 32-of-80 from the three-point line while dishing out a team-best 2.7 assists per game. He is also the top returning rebounder with a 4.2 average. Jerard McGinty averaged 9.5 points and hit a team-high 42 percent from the three-point line. McGinty, who made 33 three’s last season, has the ability to take opponents down low and score. The 6-foot-4 junior averaged 3.3 rebounds per game.
“Andre will be a four-year starter,” said Boxell. “He is a knowledgeable player. I get a lot of feedback from him. He is a good shooter and good scorer. He understands the game well. We will lean on him to make our younger players more effective. A player like Andre can make the game easier for the other kids. Jerard is a good three-point shooter. He can help us inside and outside.”
The point guard position may have the most depth of any position on the team. Sophomore Mark Perez returns after making the ASC East Division All-Freshman Team. Perez started in 16 games and can shoot the three. Improved junior DaMario Lyons and sophomore Isaiah Boxell are expected to contribute, and transfer Jermery Victor has the coaching staff believing he can make a difference, too. It will be important for that group to take care of the ball. The Eagles had the worst turnover margin in the league.
“At point guard, it may be a situation where we play more than one person,” said Boxell. “We just need to see who will develop and help us out the most. It is not a matter of one being better than the other, but rather which player will make our team better. They have to take care of the ball. If you don’t turn the ball over and give the other team easy baskets and play good fundamental defense, then we can control whatever we do.”
Sophomores Clayton Crouch and Shawn Curtis saw action as starters during the season. Crouch averaged 4.8 points from his guard position. Curtis, a 6-foot-4 forward, averaged 3.8 points and nearly two rebounds per game.
“Our sophomore class has a better understanding of what we want to do,” said Boxell. “We have four kids from the same high school that can help us out, too.”
Boxell believes a lack of size and improved depth won’t necessarily change the Eagles’ offensive philosophy.
“Our style of play will be similar to last year,” said Boxell. “I think we can push the ball a little more. We still won’t be a fast break type team. One of the bright spots to this year’s team is the addition of freshman Bryton Flint. He can get to the basket and shoot the three. He is a nice player. He can make us better.”
Boxell’s mantra in the past has been team defense and team toughness, areas that will continue to be emphasized this season. The Eagles finished near the bottom of the league in offensive rebounding and steals.
“We have to be the best block out team, the best charge team and the best defensive team in the league,” said Boxell. “We have to play good team defense. Last year, it probably wasn’t a lack of effort, but a lack of concentration. We have to do a better job guarding others. We need to stay in front of the ball defensively. We need to be on the same page mentally. That is probably the biggest key. We need to stay focused to play the game. If we can concentrate and not just react we will be a step ahead defensively. Our players need to see what will happen before it happens.”
The Eagles finished last in the division with a 6-13 conference mark. A stronger second half of the season will be needed in order to make a push for the playoffs.
“We need to win more games in the second half of the season,” said Boxell. “Our goal is to make the conference tournament and win the tournament. Everybody is close in this conference. It can come down to who plays harder. That is one of the keys to winning in this conference. If you don’t play hard and don’t play smart, your chances are not as good as the other team. We have to make our expectations higher. Sometimes it is hard to raise the expectations when you have not been to the tournament. But this is a different season and different team.”