By SIMON BRADY
With Midnight Madness on the horizon, the UT basketball team kicks off their 2016-2017 campaign. Coming off a disappointing 9-18 season, the players and coaching staff are excited to bounce back this year.
Head coach Richard Schmidt is entering his 34th season, maintaining one of the longest head coaching tenures in all of Division II basketball. Schmidt has enjoyed 29 winning seasons in his first 33 seasons coaching the Spartans. This makes a down year for his squad quite unfamiliar territory.
Associate head coach Justin Pecka spoke on the reasoning behind the poor 2015-2016 season. “Lack of execution late in games, losing far too many games by under 10 points,” Pecka said. “That’s mostly on us not working on late game situations more in practice.”
Beyond the Xs and Os and in game deficiencies, Pecka alluded to the lack of camaraderie and experience that existed within the locker room. “Last year’s team chemistry wasn’t the best, guys were unsure of roles, it was visible to the coaches.”
With the entire starting lineup returning for this season Pecka is noticing a positive shift and growth in the team’s chemistry. “This year it’s more encouraging in the weight room, on the court, guys seem to have better camaraderie and togetherness when they’re putting in work,” Pecka said.
In terms of the play on the hardwood, Pecka plans to give the players more freedom on the offensive side. “We’re going to let the guys get up and down in transition this year,” Pecka said. “We have talented guards who can penetrate and create for other guys.”
On the defensive end, utilizing the team’s depth and keeping guys fresh is the key in order to keep the pressure up. “We want to make sure guys can give 110 percent on defense and coaches have the ability to sub guys in and out frequently so legs stay fresh,” said Pecka.
Pecka has high expectations for the players this year and expects a season of success.“Sophomore guard Pat Bacon is a gym rat, the hardest worker on the team, and highly motivated to recover from his knee injury he suffered last year,” Pecka said.
Bacon is coming off an incredible freshman season, averaging 19.2 points per game, which was third among DII freshmen. He was also named the Sunshine State Conference (SSC) Player of the Year, and the SSC All Newcomer team. He is poised to take another step forward this season.
Pecka also stressed the importance of productive play out of fifth year senior guard Austin Rettig. “He’s been here when the team has reached a conference championship and when they’ve failed and had a losing season,” Pecka said. “So he’s kind of seen it all playing for us.” Pecka affectionately calls Rettig the “Grandfather” of the team, having so much experience playing for UT basketball.
Rettig is a versatile presence on the team, averaging 14 points per game last year. He also totaled 41 assists, 22 steals, 10 blocks and shot 30 percent from beyond the arc. He has an expectation to be more of a vocal leader in practice this season.
Pecka also stressed the importance of the play of the talented junior duo of Marcel Robinson and Duke Shelton. “We need consistency out of those guys in order to take that next step as a team,” Pecka said.
As an experienced member of the team, Rettig understands he has the necessary tools to have a successful senior season. “Being a redshirt senior has given me more than enough time to study and observe all aspects of the game a UT basketball player has to go through,” Rettig said.
According to coaches, Rettig is a swiss army knife on the court, capable of impacting the game in a plethora of ways. But, Rettig focuses more on his communication and inclusiveness toward teammates on the court. “Overall I take pride in my ability to get every player on the court involved,” Rettig said. “I see now that I can keep each teammate involved and valuable on the court, then it makes my game so much easier. That, in return, creates a great team culture.”
This approach is a testament to Rettig’s awareness of needing to be the voice and leader of the team this year.
With the first exhibition game just around the corner, excitement is at an all-time high within the basketball program. This is shaping up to be one of the more exciting UT teams to follow this year.
Simon Brady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org