By PHIL NOVOTNY
The UT men’s basketball team and head coach Richard Schmidt are determined to rebound. Schmidt is entering his 34th season with the Spartans, but his team will be looking to flip the script after finishing a underwhelming 9-18 last season, while going 4-12 in Sunshine State Conference (SSC) play. In fact, last season marks only the fourth under Schmidt where the Spartans haven’t finished with a winning record. This season, the Spartans are emphasizing practice and preparation as their primary tools for improvement under Schmidt’s tutelage.
“Coach Schmidt’s mentality is to win and we are all on board,” said freshman guard Mekhi Biffle. “Proper preparation prevents poor performance, and I think we are always being prepared to win and compete at the highest level.“
On the court, Schmidt hints that the additional experience on the team can assist them in upgrading multiple facets of their game.
“We absolutely are going to have to have a better shooting percentage and our defense has just got to be better; that’s what we’ve worked hard on,” Schmidt said. “Last year, we had no experience. Some of these guys have been able to play a year and we feel like there’s improvement in that area.”
In SSC play, five of the Spartans 12 losses were by a margin of six points or less. Three of those games were decided by one point. Therefore, Schmidt hopes that his returning players can turn those games into wins this time around.
“We could have won a lot of games that we didn’t; a lot of that is experience,” Schmidt said. “Two of our starters that were sophomores, played very little as freshman, so we got to do better.”
Last week, the Spartans were ranked sixth in the latest SSC preseason poll. Notably, Barry University was selected to win the conference after receiving 57 first place votes despite losing to Eckerd College in last year’s SSC Championship Game by a final score of 87-84. Nevertheless, Barry ended up making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament last season before falling to Lincoln Memorial University (Tenn.) 93-75 in the Elite Eight. However, preseason polls are known for being deceiving at times.
“I don’t ever like to vote for ourselves,” Schmidt said. Since we put ourselves last, sometimes that drops us down.”
Schmidt also mentions how the influx of Division I (DI) transfers adds onto the difficulty to the voting process.
“It’s hard vote to now because our league now is such that people are recruiting all DI transfers,” Schmidt said. “Years ago, that never happened. Nowadays, the loyalty factor is not there in sports anymore, so a lot of these kids go DI and they’re sitting out a year or two; they just want to transfer out.”
Schmidt discussed how Barry, had five DI transfers in their starting lineup. Additionally, he noted that if a DI player wanted to transfer then they’d have to go through a redshirt season. During a redshirt season, a student-athlete has to sit out for a academic year due to their ineligibility as a transfer student. Thus, according to Schmidt, players make their way to Division II in order for them to not be declared ineligible to play right away.
Despite the validity of these polls, the Spartans are sustaining their high hopes going into this upcoming season. “I want to compete nationally and make a deep run in the [NCAA] Tournament,” Biffle said. “We also have a high expectation on winning the SSC and getting a good seed for the [NCAA] Tournament in March; I want it to be nothing short of great this year.”
The Spartans open up their regular season tomorrow at the University of North Alabama at 5:30 p.m.
Phil Novotny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org