The Kansas Wesleyan Coyotes ended the 2021-22 season with a game in the NAIA Men’s National Championship, ending a 15-year absence.
They earned an at-large bid and proceeded to defeat Indiana-South Bend in the first round at Hartman Arena in Park City before losing to Kansas Conference rival Oklahoma Wesleyan in the second round.
Coach Anthony Monson is banking on that accomplishment and experience to help propel his team in the 2022-23 season.
“It gives your program some name recognition at a national level which is always a positive thing,” said Monson, who enters his sixth season with the Coyotes. “Secondly and maybe more importantly it gives your guys a taste of what it’s like at that level.”
Winning the first game was an additional benefit.
“It’s one thing to get there, it’s another thing to find ways to get a win while you’re there and we were able to accomplish both of those things,” he said. “I think that sets the bar higher obviously for what this group is expected to do moving forward.”
Expectations are high this winter for a deep and experienced KWU team that finished last season with a 23-11 record, 15-9 in the KCAC, and won nine of its last 13 games. Five players with substantial starting experience return along with four who saw significant duty off the bench. There is also the addition of three transfers who figure provide immediate help.
All of that guarantees nothing, though.
“It’s nice having the experience, it’s nice having guys you can lean on but at the same time we haven’t done anything yet,” Monson said. “We won haven’t won a game, we haven’t played anybody. We’ve got to fight that complacency and stay humble and stay hungry and just find ways to get better each day.”
KWU will be without forward AJ Range, a five-year standout who was the anchor in the middle offensively and defensively.
“You have a guy for half a decade just hanging around so you kind of get used to having him,” Monson said. “AJ was such a vocal, powerful presence. We’re working on trying to develop that again but at the same time our guards have been more vocal now that AJ hasn’t been around. We’re still trying to find some leadership at that forward spot. Trey Duffey (JR/Topeka, Kan.) has done a good job of that, he’s kind of the elder statesman of the group along with CJ Weathers (SR/Allen, Texas).”
Point guard Jun Murdock (JR/Wichita, Kan.) leads the returning cast after earning NAIA Honorable Mention All-America honors last season when he averaged 13.7 points, 3.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds.
“He runs the show for us, he is our leader,” Monson said. “When things get rocky, he takes over and does what he needs to do.”
Guard Easton Hunter (JR/Colwich, Kan.) also returns to the starting lineup along with forwards Cory Kaplan (JR/Merritt Island, Fla.) and Duffey. Alex Littlejohn (SO/Newton, Kan.) was a starter late in the season and key contributor all season.
Hunter averaged 7.9 points and shot 38.2 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. Kaplan averaged 11.0 point and 3.5 rebounds; Duffey averaged 5.2 points and 4.5 rebounds; and Littlejohn 8.3 points and 6.7 rebounds as a freshman.
“Easton’s going into his third year and has a lot of games under his belt, a lot of starting experience under his belt,” Monson said. “Duffey’s in his fourth year and Cory Kaplan was playing as good as anybody down the stretch for us and we expect him to have a huge role.
“Alex Littlejohn‘s going to take a huge step forward this year – I have no doubt about that. He was great last year and he’s going to move more into one of our main guy roles this year and we need him too.”
Swingman Tyus Jeffries (SR/Oklahoma City, Okla.), guards Marcel Dean (JR/Tucson, Ariz.) and Isaiah Hale and Weathers were big off the bench a year ago – Jeffries averaging 7.3 points, Dean 7.0 while shooting 38 percent from deep, Hale and Weathers averaging 3.1 points each.
“Those guys are all capable of starting if need be and give us a lot of depth and versatility,” Monson said. “We’re excited about that and just hope that everybody stays healthy.”
Guard Micah Lovett (SO/Tulsa, Okla.) (2.9 points per game) and forward Jake Potthoff (JR/Shawnee Mission, Kan.) (1.8 ppg) also return along with guard Gabe Mack (SR/Milwaukee, Wis.) who suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the season. He averaged 7.8 points and started 12 games during 2020-21.
Thurbil Bile (JR/Centennial, Colo.), an athletic forward, and guards Caden Hale (SO/Glenpool, Okla.) and Malik Marshall (SO/Rockford, Ill.) are the top newcomers. The 6-foot-5 Bile average 8.0 points, 5.0 points and shot 53.4 percent last season at Lamar Community College. Marshall averaged 14 points at Rock Valley College while Hale is a transfer from Arkansas Tech.
“Bile is a very athletic forward, has very good feel and very good touch around the rim,” Monson said. “He’s not the big muscular big (man) but he’s an athlete. He can do some things a little bit differently than AJ was able to do but he’s also not going to be AJ. Hale is a very smart, very heady player, has done a tremendous job for us. Marshall has been getting better every single day.”
Monson also signed a large freshmen class with two impressing early on – Lance Rawls (FR/McKinney, Texas), a 6-7 forward from McKinney, Texas and Larry Graham (FR/Wichita, Kan.), a 6-0 guard from Wichita (West High School).
Monson expects the KCAC to be as difficult as ever.
“In my opinion there’s not a better sport in our league top to bottom right now than men’s basketball. It is just phenomenal,” he said. “You look at the teams at the top, you look at the teams in the bottom and I’ve seen those teams at the bottom beat the teams at the top. And we’re talking about a conference that sent four teams in the national tournament.”
The Coyotes open the season with six consecutive home games starting with Bellevue on November 4 and Doane on November 5 inside Mabee Arena.
“We’ve got things moving in the right direction,” Monson said.