Obviously, it was a long season for the Chadron State College men’s basketball team.
Because of a family emergency, the Eagles lost their most-experienced and most-athletic player before the season began, had another family issue cause one of the top recruits to miss half the season, were hit hard by injuries and other health issues, lacked size and wound up with a 3-25 season record.
They defeated their only Nebraska opponents, Nebraska-Kearney and Bellevue, in November, but their only other victory came on Dec. 4. Twenty consecutive losses followed, five of them by six or fewer points, including a triple overtime setback in the season-finale.
Second-year coach Houston Reed acknowledges it was a tough season. But instead of singing the blues, he’s optimistic, stating, “I don’t think we’re that far away from being a pretty good team.”
During the season, Reed never accused his players of lack of effort.
Since center Matt Reader was the team’s only senior and the coach anticipates nearly all of the 11 players on the roster will return along with three players who redshirted this past season, Reed notes he’s “not looking for a busload of recruits” for one of the few times in his coaching career.
“I hope to add two or three really talented players, guys who can come in and play right away and help make things happen. We don’t need role players. Obviously, we need a player or two with some height,” Reed said last week before leaving campus to meet with a couple of prime prospects.
Last fall, Reed signed Trey Hladky, a senior at Campbell County High School in Gillette, Wyo., after he averaged 23 points and was named Wyoming’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2016-17.
Through 26 games this season, Hladky was averaging 27 points while shooting 47 percent from the field and had made 91 3-pointers.
The loss of Darius Polley, the Eagles’ leading scorer in 2016-17 with a 13.8 average and at times one of the most dynamic players in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, was probably the team’s biggest setback of the season.
Polley’s family, which lives in Amarillo, Texas, had a crises and he felt obligated to leave college and go hom to help.
“It was a tough situation,” Reed said. “Darius said he was needed a home and did what he had to do. I didn’t make a big issue out of it at the time, because I didn’t want to make things worse (for the team), but it was obvious that we missed his leadership and his talent.”
That wasn’t the end of the trials and tribulations. Even before Polley left, 6-foot-7 transfer Adoum Mbang was called home by his family in Camaroon for, lack of a better term, “king training.” His family is prominent in the African nation and among the seven children, he has been selected to someday succeed his father as the leader of their tribe.
Mbang was gone for more than month, then had to catch up on his academics and wound up playing in just 13 games. Since he didn’t start playing basketball until he well into his teens, he’s not a polished product, but he’s 6-foot-7, strong, agile and coachable, eager to learn. He’s among the numerous Eagles who plan to remain in Chadron this summer, and hopefully can refine his game and make a major contribution next year, when he’ll be a senior.
The Eagles also played nearly a third of their games without Dru Kuxhausen, the freshman from Scottsbluff who is the Panhandle’s all-time leading high school basketball scorer and is among the Nebraska’s top 20 all-time.
Kuxhausen got the season off to a fast start, scoring 22 points in his third game, the win at Kearney. That, plus his reputation as a 3-point sharpshooter, caused opponents to focus on shutting him down. Several foes put a defender on him nose-to-nose from the get-go.
He averaged 12.5 points and still had some big games. His best also turned out to be a painful one. He had scored 28 points against Metro State in Denver on Dec. 9 when a defender stole the ball from him, drove to the oppositie end of the arena, where Kuxhausen tried to stop him. Both crashed to the floor and Kuxhausen was injured.
He missed the rest of that game and also the next four games, two before and two after Christmas, returned to score in double figures in the first four games, but continued to experience pain in his back and hip. He received medical attention and it was finally determined he had a cracked bone and was told to discontinue practicing and playing. Thus, he was unavailable the final five games.
Reed still has lots of confidence in his prize recruit. If the Eagles can find other consistent long-range shooters, the opponents won’t be able make Kuxhausen a focal point of their defenses and he’ll have more breathing room to operate.
Kuxhausen notes that while he knew college basketball was going to be a challenge, he found it more difficult than he expected.
“I know I have to keep working and trying to get better,” he said.
Sophomore enter Michael Johnson was another player who missed significant playing time—seven games while recovering from an ulcer that was diagnosed while he was home in the Bahamas for Christmas.
Altogether, Reed has calculated that players he anticipated would be available this season missed a total of 129 games. The Eagles had just eight players in uniform for several games immediately after Christmas.
“It was our plan to really pressure the ball to help overcome our lack of size, but when you’re so thin on the bench it’s impossible to do that,” the coach noted. “I hope we never have to go through another season like this one. It was frustrating.”
On the bright side, the absences allowed promising young players such as sophomore Jordan Mills and freshmen Walker Andrew and Eric Jamerman to get lots of playing time that should benefit them in the future.
Reed, whose last five teams at Otero Junior College before he was tabbed the Eagles’ coach had a 117-46 record, is also expecting major contributions from the three players who redshirted this winter. They are Michael Sparks, a guard who averaged 12 points each of the previous two years he played at junior colleges, and a pair of 6-6 freshmen, Jacob Jefferson and Kayden Sund.
Sparks missed the season because of a sports hernia.
Jefferson averaged 24 points and 14 rebounds as a junior at Buckeye High School in Arizona, but suffered a knee injury while playing football the next fall, struggled with the recovery, but appears to be on track to take the court next season. Sund was a standout at Golden High in Colorado, but is a pre-med major and asked to redshirt so he could concentrate on his studies this year.
While discussing this year’s team, Reed says he appreciates the effort and contribution that Reader made. He was happy to see the Wisconsin athlete, who has one more year of football eligibility remaining, close out his basketball career with a game-high 17 points in the season finale.
“He did everything he could to help us,” Reed said. “This was his best season. I was happy for him.”
Juniors Jaisean Jackson and Jeremy Ruffin also did yeomen-like duty for the Eagles.
Jackson led in scoring at 12.5 points a game while shooting 45.3 percent from the field. Late in the season, fortified by driving through traffic to take the ball to the hoop he had back-to-back 23-point games, and then finished with 26 points against South Dakota Mines in the final game, when he sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send it into overtime and then scored 14 of the Eagles’ 23 point in OT.
At 6-5, Ruffin was forced to battle the array of 6-8 to 6-10 players that RMAC teams possessed this season and never backed down. He averaged nine points and eight rebounds and drew enough fouls to go to the free throw line 101 times, making 75. He also led the Eagles in steals with 28, two more than Reader.
Spunky Chadron native Vonsinh Sayaloune and lanky Australian Leigh Saffin are among the other team members who provide can provide valuable minutes. Ironically, each 23 of 68 from behind the arc this year.
“I’ve got faith in all of our players, that they can contribute and became part of some good teams,” Reed said. “When they’re back from spring break, I’ll have one-on-one meetings with all of them, find out how their lives are going, how they’re doing academically and talk to them about what I think they need to do to become better players.
“Some may not like my suggestions, but that’s what we need to find out. We’ve got to keep moving forward.”