PORTSMOUTH — “Without a doubt.”
These were the sentiments Shawnee State men’s basketball coach DeLano Thomas relayed when asked if he felt like this season’s Bears could have competed for the national championship — had the 2020 NAIA National Tournament not been cancelled in response to the coronavirus pandemic affecting much of the world.
And he’s likely right.
By all measures, the 2019-20 Bears posted a banner year by earning the program’s first national tournament appearance, a 21-11 record — a seven-win improvement from a year ago — as well as SSU’s first 20-win campaign since the 2002-03 season.
Through his first three seasons as the Bears’ head coach following his 2002-04 playing career at SSU, Thomas’ teams have posted a 49-44 record — with this season’s fourth-place Mid-South Conference finish being a byproduct of season-sweeps of Pikeville, Campbellsville and Life in conference play.
Oh, and not to mention, the Bears were picked to finish seventh in the MSC preseason poll.
“Without a doubt,” Thomas continued. “The Mid-South prepares you to have that mental edge that you can win games. We were fortunate enough to put ourselves in fourth place this year, playing the best of the best teams in the country; knowing at the same time that we were one of the best teams in the country, we just had to show it. We still had that chip on our shoulder.”
The tragedy of this story is that the Bears would not get the chance to play in their first national tournament, despite earning a bid as a No. 7-seed — just 15 or so hours before the NAIA officially nixed their postseason-crowning event.
“We had the selection show last Wednesday night, that was one of those surreal feelings that was the ultimate high. We’re all not sure if we’re going to see our names, and then our name is called and we’re high-fiving, jumping all over the place,” Thomas remembered. “Just like little kids, just excited for what we had put into it. To be acknowledged by being one of the 32 teams, we were super happy.”
Both SSU’s men’s and women’s teams were present at Buffalo Wild Wings in Portsmouth to learn their fate and their paths for their postseason journeys last Wednesday evening.
Rudy Gobert’s confirmed case of the coronavirus and the NBA’s accompanying decision to suspend its season would be the moment that would trigger the postponement or outright cancel every event in the American sports world, including the Bears’ bid to play for a national championship.
“To have everything cancelled and not be able to actually play, you start thinking about every step,” Thomas said. “Back in the spring, workouts in weight room through the summer, dedicating their time during the summers and being here on campus with nobody around, nobody in the gym, just grinding. We start the season and you start believing in something that hasn’t been done before, believing in each other, believing in our staff. That was huge for us to get to the point where we are as a program, where we are as a team. But to not be able to complete it by not playing did make it difficult.”
SSU’s best season in 17 years from a wins standpoint was paced by first-team all-MSC performers in senior Kyree Elder and junior E.J. Onu.
Elder joined the Bears ahead of his senior season, and immediately impacted every aspect of the game.
In addition to averaging 18.1 points per game and 6.9 rebounds per game, Elder led SSU during the ‘19-20 season in the following eight categories: points, points per game, field goals made, three-point field goals made, free throws made, free-throw percentage, and assists per game.
Onu became one of the most-recognizable shot-blockers in all of collegiate basketball during his freshman and sophomore seasons. His junior year was no different.
The 6-11 forward from Cleveland averaged an astounding 5.7 blocks per game while scoring 11.7 ppg and grabbing 7.8 rpg.
In fact, Onu’s 182 blocks on the season were more than each NAIA school — Division I and II — combined.
With those numbers, Elder and Onu were named to the First-Team All-MSC list, allowing Shawnee State to place two players on the First-Team All-Mid South Conference unit for the first time since joining the MSC in 2010.
The two first-team all-conference selections weren’t alone, though, as each of the 12 members of the Bears contributed at each in-season hurdle.
Additionally, Thomas himself adjusted to being joined on the sidelines by first-year associate head coach Lindal Yarbrough and first-year assistant coach Jack Trainer — with student assistant Zack Kelly returning for a third season.
If you don’t believe that team chemistry and the ability to adapt to your given situation have anything to do with your level of success, the proof is in the Bears’ results.
“I think it’s a testament to these guys believing in what we’re preaching in togetherness,” Thomas said. “We’ve been preaching so much about non-basketball stuff. The importance of relationships, the importance of communication, the importance of having time for one of your guys that day. It’s really helped us with the program to get us to where we’ve gotten to.”
Elder will be one of five SSU seniors who will depart, joining Justin Johnson, Tim Biakapia, Selby Hind-Wills and D’Andre Price — a group that Thomas says exemplifies the level of program they’re continuing to build.
“We had our exit meeting when we found out that it was cancelled, and that was just a hard conversation to try and explain to those guys why they mean so much to me and the program,” Thomas said. “Guys like Kyree and D’Andre who were here just months, to come as close as we are and really have love for these guys and want to see them be successful outside of basketball. Justin, Selby and Tim who’ve been in the program for a couple of years. Those guys stuck around, turned it around and became staples of the program by believing in what we were doing.”
Shawnee State will attempt to keep the train rolling despite the losses sustained from a key senior class.
Any doubt in what the Bears’ goals will be for next season are aiming toward building off the successes of this season, and by doing so with the relationship-building methods that have proven oh-so successful in Thomas’ first three seasons.
“Just continuing to build these relationships. We’re working on it with our recruits right now to try and figure out how to fill these shoes of some awesome, amazing seniors we’re losing this year,” Thomas said. “It’s just a mindset, now these guys have something to see and believe in because they did it. We have some guys on this team that have built this program, and I think it becomes easier to lead with the experience of this.”
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved