The 2020-21 basketball season didn’t unfold the way Anthony Monson hoped it would. But it was far from a total loss.
“With COVID I think we all learned a lot last year, a lot of things we probably didn’t want to learn,” Monson said Thursday during the Kansas Conference’s annual preseason media day. “It’s kind of like we had three years in one – we started off really well, couple of big wins, then hit a real bad lull. It seemed like everything that could go wrong went wrong.”
The Coyotes didn’t quit, though. An eight-game losing streak was replaced by five-game winning streak that included the first KCAC tournament victory in 11 years. The season ended in a 64-63 loss to Oklahoma Wesleyan in Bartlesville in the quarterfinals.
“We picked it up at the end of the year, were playing really well. I thought it was our best basketball by far,” Monson said. “We’re looking forward to this year trying to build off how we ended last year.”
Three starters and six others who started at least one game return from last year’s team that finished 12-14 (9-11 KCAC). They’re bolstered by a group of newcomers that includes two redshirts, four junior college transfers and a couple of talented freshmen.
KCAC coaches picked the Coyotes in a tie for fifth with McPherson in their preseason poll released Thursday; KWU was sixth in the media poll. Defending champion Bethel, Oklahoma Wesleyan and Ottawa were the top three in each poll.
Monson said the goal in his sixth season is to duplicate the inspired play his team displayed at the end of last season.
“We look forward to building on how we ended last year, continue to take those next steps forward and see what we do,” he said.
It starts with center AJ Range, forward Trey Duffey (SO/Topeka, Kan.) and guard Easton Hunter (FR/Colwich, Kan.) – the three returning starters. Range is a three-time All-KCAC player while Hunter was named to the All-Freshman Team and was an All-Conference Honorable Mention selection. Duffey sparked the turnaround with his inspired and physical play inside.
“I know it feels like (Range) has been in the league forever and probably has. He’s always the heart and soul of our team,” Monson said. “(Hunter’s) a really good shooter and had a really good summer, he’s gotten a lot better and is a lot more confident. Duffey has a motor that just keeps going and going and going. Lot of energy, can turn some bad plays into some really good things for us.”
Letterwinners Micah Lovett (FR/Tulsa, Okla.), Gabe Mack (JR/Milwaukee, Wis.), Tyus Jeffries (SR/Oklahoma City, Okla.), CJ Weathers (JR/Allen, Texas), Ethan Speer (SR/Salina, Kan.) and Jackson Maupin (FR/Argyle, Texas) also return.
The list of newcomers is headlined by point guard Jun Murdock (SO/Wichita, Kan.), who was the Freshman of the Year at Friends during the 2019-20 season.
“He’s has made huge difference for us just playing that point guard spot,” Monson said. “He does so many things right and are really excited about seeing him on the floor.”
Murdock was a redshirt at KWU last season along with 6-6 guard Jake Potthoff (SO/Shawnee Mission, Kan.), a transfer from MidAmerica Nazarene.
“Both of those guys benefitted from being in the program for a year,” Monson said.
The junior college transfers are guards Cory Kaplan (SO/Merritt Island, Fla.) (McCook), Marcel Dean (SO/Tucson, Ariz.) (Pima), Izaiah Hale (FR/Wichita, Kan.) (Hutchinson) and Kevin Mars (Chattanooga State).
“Kaplan can really shoot it, can put it on the floor at times – he just really knows how to score,” Monson said. “Dean played only a handful of games but was very effective. Averaged about 19 a game in those games he played, can really shoot it as well.
“Hale is a really good point guard, just knows the game and understands it. Can knock down shots and get to the basket. Mars is a 6-3 lefthanded athletic guard and just does things at a different pace and different level than a lot of guys we have.”
The freshmen of note are forwards Alex Littlejohn (FR/Newton, Kan.) (Wichita Bishop Carroll) and Gabe Phillips (FR/Valley Center, Kan.) (Valley Center). Monson said Littlejohn will see “pretty significant minutes.”
“He’s been fantastic and does so many things right,” he said.
The Coyotes open the season against Doane on October 30 in Crete, Neb., then play Dakota State on November 5 and Clarke on November 6 inside Mabee Arena in the Coyote Classic. KCAC play begins against York on November 17 in York, Neb.
2021-22 KCAC Men’s Basketball Coaches Poll
1. Bethel – 144 (12)
2. Oklahoma Wesleyan – 125
3. Ottawa – 124 (1)
4. Southwestern – 111
T5. Kansas Wesleyan – 97
T5. McPherson – 97
7. Friends – 64
8. Tabor – 60
9. Avila – 58
10. York – 44
11. Saint Mary – 41
12. Bethany – 35
13. Sterling – 14
2021-22 KCAC Men’s Basketball Media Poll
1. Bethel – 242 (16)
2. Oklahoma Wesleyan – 226 (2)
3. Ottawa – 196 (1)
4. McPherson – 184
5. Southwestern – 171
6. Kansas Wesleyan – 152
7. Tabor – 115
8. Bethany – 110
9. Friends – 96
10. Avila – 87
11. York – 62
T12. Sterling – 44
T12. Saint Mary – 44