NORMAN, Oklahoma – The Northwestern State men’s basketball team is used to mixing in key newcomers with a group of veteran players, especially since the advent of the transfer portal.
The Demons will get their first look at their new mix this week when they open the season at Oklahoma on Tuesday and Tulsa on Wednesday.
NSU tips off at Oklahoma at 7 p.m. on Tuesday (Bally Sports Oklahoma) before heading to Tulsa for a 7 p.m. tip on ESPN+.
The Demons will be aired on the Demon Sports Network on 95.9 FM The River with Patrick Netherton play-by-play duties.
Full stadiums are also something NSU is accustomed to, something that they are Demons are expecting to see again as COVID-19 restrictions have relaxed across the country.
“We played a lot of games without fans last year, so that creates a different atmosphere,” said sophomore guard Jovan Zelenbaba. “I’m sure everybody is pumped to play again, and it’s going to be really fun.
“I feel like one of the grown-ups this year with a lot of newcomers, but we’re helping them in every way possible. We’re looking good right now.”
Senior center Larry Owens, a Southland Conference preseason second-team pick, is technically the only starter returning from an NSU squad that earned the No. 4 seed in the SLC Tournament this past season.
But in the mix of nine returners are five Demons who have extensive playing time, including a significant number of career starts.
“We’re still trying to put it together, but it’s going good so far,” Owens said. “We have a lot of little things to fix … but I feel like this is the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here because we have a lot of people who can do a lot of different things like stretch the floor.
“Coming back to Oklahoma is a good feeling for me. It’s about the atmosphere and the people, and if you’re in a good environment, it’s going to be a good day every day.”
Owens compiled 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting with seven rebounds in NSU’s last trip to Oklahoma as a freshman in 2017-18, a game the Sooners won 105-68.
The Monroe native leads a veteran core that includes Zelenbaba, junior point guard Brian White, senior guard LaTerrance Reed and sophomore center Kendal Coleman.
White has played the most point guard minutes in the last two seasons, but he’ll be the face of the position after senior C.J. Jones didn’t exercise his extra season of eligibility granted by the COVID-19 waiver.
NSU coach Mike McConathy, who is beginning his 23rd season with the Demons and 39th as a head coach overall, said White is coming along as a leader to add to his on-court abilities.
“In the last two or three weeks, Brian has become much more assertive, and he’s trying to be the leader we know he can be,” McConathy said. “He hasn’t had to do that in the past because he’s been an underclassman, and he’s also battled injuries, too.
“We need him to be vocal and lead because that’s worth more even than the buckets he can score at that position.”
White averaged 5.5 points per game and is one of six returning Demons who averaged at least five points per game in 2020-21.
But as the transfer portal has become a fixture these past few seasons, NSU will be without its four top scorers from this past season Tuesday, three of which departed with eligibility remaining.
Coleman is NSU’s leading returning scorer (6.8) and the top overall rebounder (6.5) from this past season.
“We live in the portal world, and that means we’re going to change every year,” said McConathy, who lost Trenton Massner (Western Illinois), Jamaure Gregg (professional ranks) and Jairus Roberson (Texas A&M Commerce) from this past season’s squad. “We’re adjusting by having our older guys help the new ones come along.
“We’re improving a lot in that area as far as mixing people. We do have some good young pieces and junior college pieces, and they’ve stepped up and done a nice job. We’re trying to blend them together, and if they like each other, they are going to play better together.”
NSU’s six newcomers include three junior college transfers and three high school players.
Sophomore forward Cedric Garrett (Murray State College) and sophomore guard Jalen King (South Georgia State College) are among the early standouts in a diverse and athletic class.
McConathy has successfully blended his teams in each of the past two seasons, garnering the No. 4 seed in the Southland Conference Tournament.
“One thing we know about this group is they can shoot,” said McConathy, who was a dead-eye himself in his college days at Louisiana Tech, where he is still the second all-time leading scorer. “We haven’t shot well lately … but a lot of it is delivering the ball in a position to catch and shoot.
“In this first week, we know we have to keep our turnovers low, make free throws and limit uncontested shots. It’s really important for us to not give up easy buckets and make people earn their points. Oklahoma will try to work it down and control the tempo of the game, and we have to be ready for their discipline.”
Discipline will be one of the few knowns for an Oklahoma team that features new head coach Porter Moser, who guided Loyola-Chicago to the 2018 Final Four and 2021 Sweet Sixteen toward the end of his 10-year tenure.
The Sooners are replacing their top three scorers from a team that went 16-11 and won an NCAA Tournament game.
When the Demons head northeast to play Tulsa on Wednesday, Frank Haith and Co. will be more established in their program.
Haith has three seasons of at least 20 wins in his seven-year tenure and has three starters coming back from an 11-12 squad this past season.