Editor’s note: This is one of 12 team capsules breaking down the men’s basketball teams in the Big Sky Conference. League play opens on Thursday, December 29.
Southern Utah is basically starting from scratch.
The Thunderbirds finished in last place in the Big Sky Conference last season with a 3-15 conference mark and just five wins in 29 games overall. An injury to leading scorer A.J. Hess was the first blow. Suspensions to two more starters proved to be the second.
By the time the Big Sky Tournament rolled around, SUU was competitive despite its adversity. SUU lost by seven at Montana State and by four at league champion Weber State. SUU beat Northern Arizona, lost to Sac State in overtime and lost 88-86 at Portland State to finish the regular season. In the first round of the BSC Tournament, Southern Utah went toe to toe with fifth-seeded North Dakota before losing 85-80.
Before the tournament was even complete, SUU fired head coach Nick Robinson. Hess transferred to South Dakota State. Trey Kennedy, one of the suspended players, transferred to Division II.
SUU opens its season at Northern Arizona on New Year’s Eve.
Current record — 2-11
2015-2016 record: 3-15 in Big Sky play, 5-24 overall
Big Sky Tournament finish: Southern Utah earned the No. 12 seed before losing in the first round of the tournament, 85-80 to fifth-seeded North Dakota.
Head Coach: Todd Simon, first season at Southern Utah. Simon was named interim head coach of the UNLV men’s basketball program in January 2016 and immediately led them to three consecutive victories. During Simon’s 17 games, the Runnin’ Rebels ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation in adjusted tempo, scoring more than 100 points in four games. UNLV finished with a 9-8 record, despite playing with as few as five scholarship players.
Prior to being named interim head coach, Simon was in his third year as associate head coach with UNLV and had a critical role in assembling UNLV’s roster, reeling in multiple Top 10 recruiting classes. Before coming to UNLV, Simon served as the head coach at Findlay Prep, one of the top prep basketball teams in America.
Simon on the upcoming conference campaign: “We are where we are in our process. That’s the focus for us. We have a young team and a lot of new faces so we are just trying to get better every day with a long-term focus. Teach correct, teach correct, teach correct and hope we are something great at the end.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Randy Onwuasor — The muscular 6-foot-3, 215-pounder played in every game during his two years at Texas Tech, dishing out a team-high 40 assists as a freshman and averaging 4.2 points in 18.2 minutes per game as a sophomore. The younger brother of former Portland State All-America safety Patrick Onwuasor, now of the Baltimore Ravens, transferred to Southern Utah to play for Robinson and sat out last season.
The ball-dominant point guard wasted no time making his presence felt for the Thunderbirds. In the first game under Simon, Onwuasor scored 35 points in a loss at Valparaiso. He has scored at least 22 points on nine different occasions, surpassing 30 points three separate times. His 35-point outing is the second-best by a Big Sky player this season behind Montana State sophomore Tyler Hall’s 42 against Milwaukee. Onwuasor is averaging 22.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Race Parsons — The 6-4 senior from Monroe, Utah averaged 8.4 points per game and hit 38 3-pointers, second on the team as a junior.
This season, he is shooting just 37.7 percent from the floor but has hit 18 of his 50 3-point attempts and is averaging 10.0 points per game. He scored 28 points in a 94-83 loss to Ball State. He is chipping in 4.2 rebounds per game, fourth on the team.
James McGee — The smooth-shooting southpaw led SUU in scoring as a sophomore, averaging 12.1 points per game thanks to 41.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He drilled 76 3-pointers, accounting for all but 28 of his 104 field goal makes.
McGee has continued to produce despite the emergence of Onwuasor. He is averaging 14.6 points per game while shooting 42.3 percent from beyond the arc.
John Marshall — The diminutive point guard finished last season with a flurry, leading SUU in scoring against Montana, Montana state and in a first-round BSC Tournament loss to North Dakota. For the season, he averaged 6.0 points and 2.6 assists per game.
This season, he has started five of SUU’s 13 games. He is averaging 4.8 points and 2.6 assists per outing. He has missed all 17 of his 3-point attempts and is shooting just 32.7 percent overall.
AJ Hess — Hess led the Thunderbirds in scoring two years ago. Last season, he suffered a fibular fracture six games into the season and did not play again.
Hess graduated and was accepted as a graduate transfer at South Dakota State. Because he played four years at SUU, he needed to earn an NCAA hardship waiver. It was granted. He has started 11 of 13 games at SDSU, averaging 10.5 points per game.
Travon Langston — Langston was one of the most productive bench players in the Big Sky as a senior. He came off the bench for 10 of the 16 Big Sky cams he played in and averaged 11.3 points per game. The 6-3 guard also led the team with 4.3 rebounds per game.
Trey Kennedy — Kennedy, along with Onwuasor while Onwuasor sat out, were cited for possession of marijuana last winter. Kennedy served what amounted to a five-game suspension while Onwuasor was suspended for two weeks of team activities.
When in the lineup, Kennedy was one of SUU’s top scorers, averaging 11.3 points per game despite shooting just 38.7 percent from the floor and 32.3 percent from 3-point land. In the off-season, Kennedy transferred to Division II Midwestern State.
Jacob Calloway — The 6-8, 205-pound freshman from Juneau, Alaska has been productive in his 15.5 minutes per game early on. He is averaging 7.4 points and 4.5 rebounds off the bench for the T-Birds.
Christian Musoko — The 6-8, 235-pound transfer from Salt Lake Community College has started 12 of 13 games. He is averaging 5.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. He is shooting 47.4 percent.
Ivan Madunic — The 6-11, 220-pound true freshman from Split, Croatia is averaging 6.4 points per game despite shooting just 34.6 percent from the floor. He is second on the team with 5.5 rebounds per outing and he has started 12 of 13 games.
Preseason polls finish: Southern Utah was picked to finish last in the 12-team Big Sky by both the media and the coaches.