Saul Phillips isn’t adjusting expectations for the 2017-2018 season.
Phillips isn’t concerned with who isn’t on the team or what could’ve been. He wishes those who left Ohio the best, but he’s focused on the players in his program.
No one would blame him for tempering his team’s prospects for a Mid-American Conference championship. The Bobcats lost a MAC Player of The Year in Antonio Campbell, a candidate for the same honor in Jaaron Simmons and a steady leader/double-digit scorer in Kenny Kaminski.
Regardless, there will be no excuses for the Bobcats this season. Their goal remains the same: win a MAC championship.
“Always, always, always,” Phillips said. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t.”
It might not be wishful thinking on Phillips’ part, either. There’s been turnover across the conference. Akron, the defending regular season champions, have a new coach and a plethora of new players. Kent State, which represented the MAC in the NCAA Tournament last year, lost its best player in Jimmy Hall.
There’s more to the expectations than other teams teams taking steps back, too. The Bobcats replaced the talent they lost.
New faces include freshman guards Zach Butler and Teyvion Kirk, Florida Gulf Coast transfer Kevin Mickle and injured freshmen Aj Gareri and Ben Vander Plas.
The only uncertainties remaining are the injured freshmen.
Kirk and Butler have taken their freshmen lumps. They’re ready to contribute.
Kirk played his way into the rotation with athleticism, aggressiveness and an unwavering self belief. His attacks to the rim and rebounding ability for his size didn’t hurt either.
Butler hasn’t adjusted to the college level as quickly, but he has the same capabilities. He can attack the rim with ferocity and rebound, too.
Both can post up. The outlines of the future are bright.
Mickle played in the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons. With that experience comes a championship mentality that he hopes to share with his new teammates.
It’s one thing to want it. It’s another to live it.
“I know none of these guys have experienced that,” Mickle said. “It’s something you should think about every day.”
With Mickle’s mentality comes a never-ending motor and the ability to guard all five positions. His athleticism and versatility give the Bobcats infinite lineup possibilities.
They can go without a traditional point guard, as they did to start Saturday’s scrimmage with Mike Laster, Jordan Dartis, Gavin Block, Doug Taylor and Jason Carter. Put Kirk or Butler at point guard and Phillips can keep three guards in the lineup by sliding Block up to Taylor’s position.
Phillips can also go the opposite way and play huge with a Mickle-Taylor-Carter front court. Mickle’s athleticism allows him to guard wings, and his outside shooting has potential.
There are plenty of other options. This is what Phillips loves. He’ll be experimenting well into the season, but he has the lineup for any type of opponent or situation.
“Mad scientist time,” Phillips said. “When you've got guys that are versatile, it’s gonna depend on how I want to take advantage of the team we’re playing. You’re gonna wanna check the starting lineups before each game, because they’re gonna vary.”
The overlapping sets of skills also ushered in a new offense, at least compared to the last few seasons. It’s a motion offense with little holding on to the ball. There’s fewer pick-and-rolls and more responsibility for everyone who doesn't bring the ball up.
Kirk, Block, Dartis, Laster, Butler, James Gollon and even Carter will have ball handling responsibilities. Phillips said Carter will handle the ball out of the pick-and-roll.
It’s a challenge for everyone, particularly those who played in the Simmons-dominated system of the past few years. But they’re adjusting.
They enjoy running their new offense of the people.
“I feel like it gets everybody involved,” Dartis said. “Everybody’s in the action, we’re not just standing there being complacent. When everybody’s involved like that, it’s gonna keep people confident.”
The Bobcats have a new look. Simmons, Campbell and Kaminski may be gone. They probably had a better chance to win with Simmons.
But they still think they have enough. The championship is still the goal, regardless of what anyone else expects.
“Is that realistic,” Phillips wondered. “That’s not really up for me to decide. Doesn’t mean I’m not gonna try.”