The USC Aiken men’s basketball team is coming off one of the best season’s in program history. It’s also one with as frustrating a finish as the Pacers’ have had under head coach Vince Alexander, who’s entering his eighth season as head coach.
“That team had potential to go to the Elite Eight,” Alexander said of the 2011-12 squad that went 21-8 and won the Peach Belt Conference regular-season championship before advancing to the NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Tournament for the fourth time in the past five season. It’s also a squad that lost it’s final two games, a double-overtime loss to Columbus State in the semifinals of the PBC Tournament followed by a season-ending defeat to Wingate in the first round of the Southeast Regional. “Injuries set us back. Now we need to focus on what’s at hand and outdo what we did last year.”
Helping Alexander to try and surpass recent success is an interesting mix of returning players and new additions to the Pacers’ roster. Five of USCA’s 15 players are veterans of Alexander’s system, none more than senior point guard Re’mon Nelson. A preseason selection to the All-Conference Team, Nelson is coming off a season when he led the Pacers by averaging 11.8 points and 3.7 assists per game. He’s second on the school’s all-time steals list and third in assists.
“I’m very excited,” Nelson said of his outlook on this campaign, in which USCA has been pick to finish fourth in the PBC in the preseason poll before reflecting on the end of last season. “It definitely was a bad way to end the season. It left us with a bitter taste and we need to find a way to get over the hump. … I want to leave with a bang.”
Other players who know what Nelson means when he talks about a bad taste include junior guards Jesse Seilern and Ronald Zimmerman. Both have been fixtures of the program for a number of years and should play prominent roles for the Pacers again this season.
Zimmerman is a dead-eye shooter who can supply instant offense by shooting over the top of opposing defenses while creating openings for teammates by forcing opponents to over extend themselves to try and stop him. Seilern is a player who can benefit from that greatly with his ability to both shoot from long range as well as create scoring chances by putting the ball on the floor and attacking the basket.
“I like the dynamic of this team, we’ve got a good nucleus back,” Alexander said. “I like to see guys coming back and improving, Jesse and Ron in particular.”
The trio of veteran guards are joined by returning big men Maurice Hubbard and Rick Alderman. Both seniors showed flashes of tremendous play in the paint last season and will be counted on to be solid in the low post on both ends of the floor. But all of the returning players will share time with a large contingent of newcomers, as Alexander will go deep into his bench to find a successful mix in any game.
“The guys coming in bring energy and good character,” Alexander said. “They’re doing a good job and I’m enjoying coaching them.”
The newcomers also bring size. But they aren’t stereotypical space eaters. This new class of Pacers is a versatile bunch that has potential to mix up teams. The big men can play on the perimeter and have good ball handling skills. Conversely, many of the new guards are physically bigger than the back court players USCA already has, and can operate from the low post just as well as they can on the outside.
“We’re still going to maintain our speed and up-tempo play, but we’ve got a lot of bigs who can play on the perimeter and can do more,” said Nelson, who hinted he could take a back seat to some players to help them get comfortable and lead the team to success. “My role has kind of changed. Our guards are very big this year, we’ve got size and athleticism. I’m going to try to make their job as easy as possible and get them easy, open shots.”
If Nelson’s pulling the strings, some of the new players who could respond to his movements are DeVontae Wright, Santoine Butler, Shane Porchea, Paul Larsen, Kinley Branch and Derrick Scott. Wright, a transfer from The Citadel, is cut from the cloth of a more traditional point guard and could see time spelling Nelson while serving as his understudy. He’s a solid shooter and Alexander praised his decision making, and if he continues to win the trust of his coach he could even share the backcourt with Nelson in a two point guard package, something Alexander utilized last season with the now graduated Sterling Council.
Scott, Porchea and Branch are the big guards who are new to USCA. Porchea is a 6-foot-5 junior transfer from USC Upstate, Branch is a 6-6 junior transfer from Arkansas State and Scott is a towering 6-9, who’s also a junior transfer from Winthrop.
“He can really shoot it,” Alexander said of Scott, who he compared favorable to another big sharpshooter he used to coach. “He reminds me of Casey McMasters and can stretch the defense real well.”
While Scott might be more of finesse big guard, Branch is more rugged. He can create mismatches by playing with his back to the basket as well as facing up from outside. That’s something Porchea has the ability to do as well, but his best asset might be his ability to beat opponents off the dribble.
“He’s a good slasher and is versatile,” Alexander said of Porchea. “He’s a big guard who’s just scratching the surface of his potential.”
Butler is a classic swingman, and the Augusta native can use his 6-foot-8 frame to shoot over opponents while Larsen will be counted on to provide toughness inside. The junior transfer from Mercer will need to use his 6-6, 22-5 pound frame to provide a presence in the middle as the Pacers might not have a classic center this season.
“He’s strong, athletic and is great on the block,” Alexander said of Larsen. “He’s explosive.”
The rest of the roster is composed of true freshmen – guards Devante Brooks and Grant Harris – and redshirt freshmen – another big guard in Nestor Carrion as well as 6-8 center Victor Bowden. They’ll be expected to adjust to Alexander’s multiple lineups and different looks – especially on defense. In the past, the Pacers have used full-court pressure, traps and man-to-man more than zones. But Alexander offered that this lineup of longer guards could allow for more zones to clog lanes and potentially create turnovers to get the offense off and running.
“Defensively, we’re getting better and could be really good with our length,” said Alexander, who’s looking for more than wins in this early portion of the season with so many new faces. “I want us to compete, get our execution down and get our defense down. We’ve got a really good schedule that will test us early.”
USCA will open the season next Tuesday at the Convocation Center against Voorhees. Following that it will play a home-and-home with Winston-Salem and then travel to play Benedict.
There aren’t too many goals in place for the team, especially in the first portion of the season that will finish 2012. One main one is to continue the home-court dominance recent teams have established. Another is possibly playing host to the Southeast Regional.
“We’ve talked about continuing to play in the NCAA Tournament and get over that hump. I’d love to host an NCAA Tournament game, we came close last year,” Alexander said, still mindful of how close the Pacers came last season while totally focused on what this team needs to do to reach that level. “At this point, what we can accomplish is unlimited. It depends on how quickly we gel and the new guys pick up our defensive schemes.”
Noah Feit is the Sports Editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.