Pacer men’s basketball team built for this season
USC Aiken head men’s basketball coach Vince Alexander has coached some good teams, but at least by the numbers, this is his best squad yet.
The best record in Pacer history at 32-3. Several players with single-season records for the program. A chance to go deeper than any other USCA team has in men’s basketball.
Even though two of the records belong to senior guard Ron Zimmerman, who broke his own 3-pointers attempted and made records, the sharpshooter from Columbia diverted the credit.
“It’s definitely a blessing from God, man,” he said, pointing to a faith many of the players share with Alexander. “It’s really special to be a part of it. I couldn’t do it without my teammates.”
Building such a team, with 10 seniors out of 12 players, was no accident.
Only two of the seniors, Jesse Seilern and Alvin Brown, were actually on the roster for the 2010-11 season, which would’ve been freshman year for a traditional senior this year.
Zimmerman spent the year away from the team after playing as a true freshman. The rest were at other schools, with six transferring in from Division I schools prior to the 2012-13 campaign.
“We built the team for this season,” Alexander said. “We felt like the class we brought in two years ago could get up to where we wanted to be.”
That class – which included Kinley Branch, Santoine Butler, Paul Larsen, Shane Porchea, Derrick Scott and DeVontae Wright – had an immediate impact. The Pacers won the Peach Belt Conference regular season and tournament titles.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to win the conference last year,” Zimmerman said, crediting the efforts of those Division I transfers. “Their will to win and their determination helped us all.”
That Pacer team lost in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion Drury, but Alexander said he always felt like this 2013-14 campaign was when the unit would hit its stride.
“They started playing so well together, that we thought, ‘This team is special. These guys are special,’” Alexander said.
The team’s success didn’t come without warning signs.
The 2011-12 version – which only had three players from this year’s roster – was the No. 2 seed in the Southeast Regional but fell in the first round 73-70 against Wingate at Montevallo.
The following offseason is when Alexander got what he called a “blessing from God” in the form of a recruiting class of D-I transfers.
“Every one of them came on their visit together, and every one of them committed together,” Alexander said.
Also in that recruiting class was Grant Harris, a point guard from Walnut Ridge High School in Columbus, Ohio. Harris averaged just 7 minutes per game as a freshman last season behind Re’Mon Nelson and Wright, but he’s averaging almost 13 minutes this season.
That’s included some significant work spelling Seilern in an effort to defend PBC Player of the Year Troran Brown in both the PBC Tournament title game and the Southeast Regional title game. The last game also included a career-high seven points.
“I thought Grant Harris did a great job,” Alexander said. “He’s just got to continue to develop and do a great job for us. I’m very proud of his progress.”
If past successes are any indication of Harris’ future, he’s likely to go as far as Alexander would like. A former point guard himself, Alexander has coached the last two PBC Tournament and Southeast Regional MVPs in Wright and Nelson, and Nelson was also the conference’s player of the year during the 2012-13 regular season.
For Zimmerman, the development Alexander has helped bring about was more about his intangible abilities than on-court skills.
“He’s definitely helped me develop a stronger work ethic,” Zimmerman said of his head coach. “He’s definitely showed me how to work harder and be more determined than I ever have in my life.”
Those changes have resulted in dynamic improvement statistically for Zimmerman, though. He averaged just 1.9 points per game as a freshman before taking a year away from the team, then chipped in 9.8 per game in 2011-12 before leading the team in scoring the last two seasons with 15.3 ppg and 16.3 ppg, respectively.
Alexander said the key to developing those guards has been hiring assistants who are familiar with his system. Two assistants, Carlos Collazo (Mansfield) and Ryan Schroeder (USCA), played for Alexander, while the other, Michael Prandy, played collegiately at Oklahoma Baptist University around the time Alexander did.
“I’m blessed to have some great assistants, and that’s part of the reason I look for former players ... because they know how I develop my guards,” he said.
Zimmerman pointed out that, despite reaching USCA at different times and after different paths, the senior class and team as a whole has bonded, forming a “brotherhood” in the process.
“We definitely love each other, that’s for sure,” Zimmerman said.
While no one in the Pacer program is in a hurry to break up that family just yet, the downside of such a big senior class is obvious. A healthy portion of this team won’t be back next year.
That means Alexander will have lots of big shoes to fill if he wishes to continue the trend of success for the Pacers, and he said he’ll do that with both transfers and true freshmen. Coupled with a returning core of Harris, Hendrix Emu and Gavin Stephenson, Alexander said he feels good about the players that he and his assistants expect to bring into the fold.
“Recruiting is going well,” he said. “We’re fine with where we are right now, and we’re good with where we are.”
That group could also include Branch, who only played seven games this season before breaking his leg. Branch could potentially get consideration for a medical redshirt and play another year, but Alexander said the senior is trying to get back on the court this week to help his team win a championship, an effort that begins Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. Eastern time in Evansville, Ind., against Chico State.
“We just don’t know yet,” Alexander said of Branch’s status. “They’re all very, very close. All of them. Kinley’s having a hard time because this is the class he wants.”
The desire to finish his college career with a national title is also a motivating factor for Zimmerman. After feeling the team was “starstruck” last year, he said the Pacers “mean business” heading into this season’s Elite Eight matchup.
“We’ve all been assembled for one special reason, and hopefully it’s to win a national championship,” he said.
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University. Follow him on Twitter @ASJTimm.