No one can claim the Missouri State University-West Plains Grizzly basketball team is afraid of competition.
The Grizzlies’ first two games of the 2019-2020 season will be against teams who reached the Final Four of the NJCAA Division I Men’s National Basketball Championship last season.
They will meet national runners up Ranger College, Ranger, Texas, Nov. 1, and South Plains College, Levelland, Texas, Saturday in the JUCO Pre-Season Elite 8 Tournament at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.
Grizzly Head Coach Chris Popp embraces the challenge. Both teams are listed in the to 10 of the NJCAA’s preseason poll – Ranger at No. 2 and South Plains at No. 8.
“There are no easy games for us this year. Right off the bat, we play two of the best teams in the country. It’s an opportunity to measure ourselves and where we are early in the season,” he said.
“Ranger is extremely talented again this year,” Popp said, pointing out the Grizzlies saw the Rangers at the Mullen/Mitchell Jamboree Oct. 4-5 in Texas. “They appear to be even better than a year ago,” he said.
The Grizzlies’ first home game Tuesday will be against a tough Southeastern Illinois College team, then they will travel to Sedalia Nov. 8-9 for the first ever Iowa/Missouri Challenge. Their opponents will be Southeastern Community College from West Burlington and Marshalltown Community College.
“Southeastern is typically a top 25 team, and Marshalltown will be tough with its new coaching staff,” Popp said. “Another great part of the Challenge is that we’ll get to see the other teams in our region early.”
The Nov. 20 home game against Coffeyville Community College also should be a treat for Grizzly fans. “Coffeyville is another perennial power. They are currently ranked 17th. They play fast and hectic. With the way we play, that game should be fun to watch,” Popp said.
Other key home games against non-region opponents include Cowley County Community College and Neosho County Community College in the Grizzly Classic Nov. 22-23, Link Year Prep Dec. 3, Southwest Tennessee Community College and No. 6 Indian Hills Community College in the Hirsch Feed and Farm Supply Classic Jan. 3-4, and renowned Sunrise Christian Academy Feb. 1.
When these opponents are added to the four Region 16 teams – Mineral Area College, Moberly Area Community College, State Fair Community College and Three Rivers College – the Grizzlies will face one of the most challenging schedules ever.
“We don’t get off nights. We’ve played challenging schedules in the past, but adding those first two games to what we already play takes it to another level,” Popp said. “We won’t have comfort games to build confidence early in the season. We will have to build it against some of the best competition in the nation.”
To compete at this level, the Grizzlies will have to progress early. “Having a good core group of returning players will aid that effort, Popp said.
Those returners include sophomore guards Sardaar Calhoun, Tappahannock, Virginia, and D’Andre Vilmar, Abaco, Bahamas; sophomore forward Alex Peterson, Tappahannock, Virginia; and redshirt sophomore forward Quentin Jones, Columbus, Ohio.
“Sardaar had a great off-season. He worked. It has paid off,” Popp said, pointing out that Calhoun received several high level scholarship offers before announcing his commitment to Florida State university. “He is coachable, positive and continues to learn and develop in ways other than scoring. He’s primed to have a great year,” the coach added.
“D’Andre makes everything work on the court,” Popp said. “He communicates, he leads, things flow when he’s on the floor. He was our best defender last year, playing everywhere from forward to point guard. He just makes winning plays.
“Alex has taken huge leaps from where he was a year ago. He’s playing at a very high level. The biggest thing is his consistency right now. He had big games for us last year, but his consistency has changed. We could see it from preseason running to the weight room. He’s become an every day guy,” Popp said.
“Quinton is big and explosive. He’s also playing at a very high level,” the coach added. “Alex and Q will be a handful. Both are tough and play very hard. Most good teams have two or three good guards. Having bigs like these two can separate you.”
Popp noted all four were voted by their teammates as captains this season.
“They are leaders. They’ve got their act together. They’re responsible. They’re guys we can count on. They take care of business in the classroom and in everything they do, and they have the players’ respect,” the coach said.
Newcomers to watch include sophomore guard Taevon Horton, Fairmont, W. Va., a transfer from West Virginia University; freshman point guards Malik Tidwell, Chicago, Illinois, and Zavien Smith-Morales, Orlando, Florida; freshman guards Nico Hill, Opunake, New Zealand, and Franklyn Petion, Freeport, Bahamas; and freshman forwards Alex Rodrigues, Sau Paulo, Brazil, and Yogev Levy, Tel Aviv, Israel.
“Taevon is an elite athlete and another tough guard who makes winning plays,” Popp said. “He was the Gatorade High School Player of the Year his senior year in West Virginia, and he’s been impressive. He’s an animal defensively. He shoots the ball well and gets to the rim. He’s a really good young man.
“Malik is a strong, physical point guard. He’s quick, low to the ground, and gets where he wants to with the ball. Zavien has offensive gifts you can’t teach,” the coach said. “D’Andre, Malik and Zavien all have size and length. We could play any mix of them.
“Nico is a coach’s son who plays like a coach’s son. We have moved him all over the court already, and instinctively he knows what he’s doing. He’s very skilled. He’s a guy who can play anywhere for us,” Popp said.
“Franklyn is explosive athlete, a very tough, physical young man. He rebounds well from the guard position, shoots it well from the rim and scores a lot of different ways. He has a lot of gifts. Once he gets comfortable, he’ll have a big impact for us,” Popp said.
“Alex has a chance to be special as he acclimates to this level. He is all of 6-feet, 9-inches and has a 7-foot wing span,” the coach said. “He comes from a basketball background and can score all over the court.”
At 6-feet, 11-inches and 250 pounds, Levy could become a key component for the Grizzlies. “He has great hands and plays very hard,” Popp said. “He’s trying to adjust to the game, after having been in the Israeli military for the last three years. He’s going to help us. He’s a smart kid.”
Other players on the roster include sophomore guards Eric Stafford, St. Louis, and Sam Wallin, Springfield; freshman guards Daleon Gibson, Norfolk, Virginia, and Fred Mouangassa, Brazzaville, Congo; and freshman forward Edward Huling, Waynesville.
“I’m excited about this group,” Popp said. “It’s a great mix – a mix of talents, personalities and leadership. We also have a toughness that we have lacked. The word I’ve used a lot this year to describe them is driven. They’ve been good in the classroom, away from the gym, and on the court. Each one is here for a reason and has something pushing him. It’s been a great group to work with.”