No. 5 USC Aiken men’s basketball team led by 10 seniors
If wisdom comes through experience, the college basketball knowledge base for the USC Aiken men’s team could probably fill a library.
Of the 12 players who have logged minutes for the No. 5 Pacers this season, 10 of them are seniors, a makeup that has resulted in a second straight Peach Belt Conference championship sweep and the hosting rights for a second consecutive NCAA Division II Southeast Regional.
In addition to their efforts on the floor, head coach Vince Alexander said he’s appreciated the service the “awesome group” has put in with the Aiken community and the way they’ve avoided trouble during their time at USCA.
“I would say that it’s meant a whole, whole lot,” he said of the seniors’ presence. “This group of young men has been a tremendous group to coach.”
Senior guard Jesse Seilern acknowledged the advantages of playing with so much experience on the floor at all times.
“I feel very fortunate playing with nine seniors,” he said. “That we don’t have to deal with maturity issues, and we know that that is our last shot.”
These seniors aren’t just bringing their years to the table, though.
The group holds the top 10 spots on the team in points per game and the top eight spots in minutes and rebounds per game. In addition, the seniors hold the top five spots in assists per game and 3-point percentage.
“It’s been a phenomenal help,” Alexander said. “They lead us in everything.”
While all 10 are seniors, their time with the Pacer program is varied, as only guards Jesse Seilern and Ronald Zimmerman spent their entire careers in Aiken.
Zimmerman is the team’s leader in scoring with an average of 16.5 points per game heading into this weekend’s regional. He’s also cleared 20 points 10 times, 30 points twice and has a 3-point percentage of 44.9 percent while hitting almost four 3-pointers per outing.
“His 3-point shooting has really opened things up for us offensively,” Alexander said of Zimmerman.
Seilern is just short of the double-digit mark with 9.7 points per game, but he also contributes 3.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists. All that comes while often defending the opponent’s top scorer and battling a back injury throughout the season.
Alexander pointed out that Seilern has missed just three games despite requiring two or three days of treatment each time he plays.
“It speaks of his toughness and willingness to fight through it,” Alexander said.
He also said that toughness has helped define the personality of the Pacer team as a whole.
“They’ve been down by 20; they’ve been down by 18, and they fight back,” the coach said.
Seilern said that knowing his coach had such lofty words regarding his effort “means a lot.”
“It means that I’m very well-respected ... by your teammates and your coach,” he said. “If you’re respected by your coach and your team sees that, then it makes them work harder.”
The rest of the seniors are transfers, and all but one – Rick Alderman – came from a Division I program. Six joined the Pacers prior to the 2012-13 season, led by Mercer transfer Paul Larsen and Citadel transfer DeVontae Wright, both All-PBC Tournament selections.
Larsen, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound forward, leads the team with 8.8 rebounds per game and also adds 12.6 rebounds per outing. He nearly had a double-double in every game of the PBC Tournament, breaking a streak of three such outings with a 10-point, eight-rebound day against Montevallo in the championship game.
In all, the second-team All-PBC regular-season selection has logged 10 double-doubles for the season.
Alexander was blunt about the result of Larsen’s inside presence over the last two seasons.
“It’s brought us the 29 victories this year and the 25 last year,” he said.
Seilern said that the “dynamics are awesome” within the Pacer offense, as post players like Larsen, Alderman and Alvin Brown allow the guards to operate more freely.
“It’s tremendous,” Seilern said. “Knowing that we have full strength inside and out, it eases the pressure a little bit.”
Wright’s performance in the PBC Tournament was good enough to earn MVP honors, as he averaged 18 points and 6.3 assists over the three games. That’s even higher than the point guard’s average of 15.4 points and 5.3 assists per game on the year.
“I just think that DeVontae is a very, very good point guard,” Alexander said. “DeVontae could score 15 or 20 points a game, but he wants to lead this team.”
One area that Wright has also been prolific is 3-point shooting, where his 45.5 percent effort is best on the team, but he only took one 3-point attempt in the PBC Tournament. Wright has has only six attempts from beyond the arc in the Pacers’ current 11-game winning streak.
Alexander said the lack of deep shooting from his point guard hasn’t been a result of design, but of Wright’s desire to “keep these guys happy” and spread the ball around.
“He’s a really good shooter,” Alexander said of Wright. “I’d like for him to take that shot when he’s open, but he’s going to be selective.”
Another pair of seniors – Alderman and Brown – came in prior to last season but had to battle adversity to return to the court for the Pacers. Brown, who leads the nation in blocks per game with four, was ineligible due to academics for two seasons. Alderman, who chips in 5.8 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, suffered a back injury of his own last year and redshirted.
Alexander called Alderman a “starter off bench” and lauded Brown’s contributions to the Pacer defense.
“He’s brought our defense to another level, and he enjoys that,” Alexander said.
The Pacers also get minutes from Santoine Butler, Shane Porchea and Derrick Scott off the bench. Butler chips in 4.6 points, 5.2 boards and 1.2 blocks, while Porchea adds in 5.6 points and Derrick Scott scores 1.9 per game.
The 10th senior is Kinley Branch, who was averaging 9.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game while shooting 41.9 percent from beyond the 3-point line before breaking his foot seven games into the season. Alexander said Branch has a desire to return and help this senior class win a national championship, but he wouldn’t be available until after this weekend’s regional, at the earliest, if the team can advance that far.
“I think it would be a spark coming off that bench with another shooter,” he said.
With so many contributors set to leave the program after this season, Alexander will have a lot of work on his hands to fill out a roster for next season. That isn’t a stage of the game he’s ready to approach just yet.
“Not just coaching them, I enjoy being around them,” Alexander said of his seniors. “To not have them on the sideline with me next year, it’s very difficult to think about.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University. Follow him on Twitter @ASJTimm.