The 2015-16 version of the Arkansas State University Mid-South Greyhounds have a tough act to follow, but Head Coach Chris Parker says he believes this year's team could be his best.
"This is by far our biggest team, and I feel like this will be our best team," said Parker, entering his fifth year as the Greyhounds' leader. "We're always cautiously optimistic, but I think we have much more reason for optimism this year than we have in the past."
The 2014-15 Greyhounds finished with a school-record 18 wins and sent six players to four-year institutions on athletic scholarships, so if Parker's prediction is accurate, fans could witness something special this year.
"I'm very excited about this season and think we have the potential to go further than any other team we've had," Parker said. "The coaches are feeling a different vibe, a different level of excitement and intensity. I think our fans will see a more refined product this year."
ASU Mid-South returns five players with significant two-year college experience: Joe'Randle Toliver, Tasmania Jones, Trent Steen, Tyler Armstrong, and Tevin Brown. They will be joined by newcomers Jerell Bernard, Teverette Cain, LaQuan Davie, Ladarius Mason, Cameron Ricks, and Chris Smith.
Returnees include Tevin Brown (11), Joe'Randle Toliver (23), Trent Steen (12), Tasmania Jones (33), and Tyler Armstrong (10).
"The five returners are really good kids, and that's why they're back," Parker said. "They've proven they can get it done both in the classroom and on the court, and they're also good people. They've bought into what we do and how we do it, and they're willing to sacrifice for the team."
"Our sophomores are providing a lot of leadership. It helps that they have a year of experience in our system. They bring a different level of thinking, a higher level of thinking to what we're doing. We have a very solid group."
The returnees play different positions, and barring anything unexpected, the quintet will open the season in starting roles.
"We're always open, but certainly the five sophomores have stepped forward," Parker pointed out. "With their experience, they have been working first-team since the first day of practice, and they are looking good."
Experience and size will give the Greyhounds more flexibility this season.
"We've increased the playbook a little bit and are running more sets which will give us some different options," Parker explained. "Every year we tweak our offense a little bit to fit our personnel, and this crew is able to run more triangle offense options.
"With a starting front court of 6-4, 6-6, and 6-7, with some 6-4s, 6-5s, and a 6-8 coming off the bench, we're also able to do more because we have more variety in our lineup."
Toliver, who sat out last season as a redshirt, and Jones headline the returnees.
Toliver is a 6-4, 200-pound guard who played high school basketball for the Jonesboro Golden Hurricane. As a freshman for Mid-South Community College, he averaged 7.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.3 steals a game and helped lead the Greyhounds to their Region 2 Championship while shooting 48.1 percent from the field, 34.6 percent from the three‐point line and 85.7 percent from the free throw line.
"Joe'Randle is definitely a Division I prospect and has been recruited that way since high school," said Parker, noting that Southeast Missouri State University offered Toliver a scholarship before he opted to become a Greyhound. "We're looking to him for leadership since he's a third-year player, and he also brings a high level of talent."
Jones is a 6-6, 245-pound forward who played at Wynne High School. He averaged 12 points and 6 rebounds per game and shot a team‐high 56.2 percent from the field on his way to All‐Region honors.
"He was our second leading scorer and leading rebounder a year ago, and he continues to get better," Parker said. "I think he has improved in a number of areas that fans will notice."
Steen, a 6-7, 210-pound forward from Forrest City, played a key role as a reserve for last year's team. A defensive stalwart in the paint, he led the team in blocked shots and averaged 4.3 points and 2.5 rebounds per contest.
"He's added almost 20 pounds to his frame and brings a defensive intensity that we didn't always have last year," Parker said.
Armstrong, a 6-2, 180-pound guard out of Brinkley High School, notched 5.1 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.1 steals per game as a freshman. He shot 42 percent from the field, 27 percent from beyond the arc, and 67 percent from the free throw line.
"He's improved significantly, and I'm really excited about his shot from the three-point line," Parker said. "He put in a lot of work over the summer to improve his range. He's got a great first step, is deceptively quick, and can get to the paint."
Brown, a 5-10, 155-pound guard who played high school basketball at Watson Chapel in Pine Bluff, appeared in 26 games for the Greyhounds a year ago and is poised for a breakout season. He led all guards in assist‐to‐turnover ratio in 2014-15.
"A true gym rat, Tevin is a very solid point guard," Parker pointed out. "He is a great leader and a hard worker. He really sets the tone in practice every day and pushes our guys to bring the intensity every second they're on the floor."
Parker said early-season practices have gone exceptionally well.
"We've had arguably the best two weeks of practice that we've ever had to start the season. The thing that has impressed me most about this team is the players' practice intensity.
We've restructured our practices a little bit to facilitate that. We did a lot of research over the summer, and we've gone to a two-hour, high-intensity practice.
"Our practices have always moved very steadily from one drill to the next, but we stretched it out over 2:20 to 2:30. In order to achieve the same type of intensity that we want in games, we've shortened our practices. The guys are probably a little more tired now after two hours than they were in the past after two-and-a-half. Our teaching methods have changed as well, and I've really seen some improvements there. I think all of this gives us the opportunity to achieve some goals that have eluded us previously."
ASU Mid-South will open the season Friday, Oct. 30, at home against the Crowley's Ridge College junior varsity team in the Greyhound Tipoff Classic, sponsored in part by the West Memphis Advertising and Promotion Commission. In the second game, the host team will take on the Blue Mountain College JV.