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Men's Basketball: Scaling the Mount

From left, Byron Ashe, Will Miller, Mawdo Sallah and Chris Wray try to bring down a rebound during a scrimmage at Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg Oct. 22.
From left, Byron Ashe, Will Miller, Mawdo Sallah and Chris Wray try to bring down a rebound during a scrimmage at Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg Oct. 22. (DYLAN SLAGLESTAFF PHOTO, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Third-year Mount St. Mary's coach Jamion Christian researched the type of "mid-major" teams that have fared well in the NCAA tournament.

He found that they had common traits: Big players at the wing position, strong rebounders, and players who could knock down a lot of outside shots.

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So when he says this year's Mount team is bigger, faster and more athletic than his previous two, but still able to regularly drain 3-pointers, it's not by accident.

"That was the plan," said Christian, whose team won the Northeast Conference championship to earn an NCAA tournament berth last spring. "We got there a little bit early because we had some great guys who bought in."

Three of those "guys" are gone, however. Julian Norfleet, Rashad Whack, and Sam Prescott scored more than 60 percent of the Mountaineers' points, not to mention accounting for 72 percent of their assists and 61.4 percent of their steals.

That trio of guards graduated, causing expectations outside of Emmitsburg to dip. The Mount was picked fifth in the NEC preseason coaches' poll.

The goals are the same at the Mount, however, and Christian says this year's "bigger, faster and more athletic" team will continue to employ the pressing, fast-breaking, 3-point shooting style he calls "mayhem" when the season begins Friday night at No. 2 Arizona.

The Mount's roster includes a great deal of experience in the post, lots of length inside and on the wing, a bevy of 3-point shooters, and, at least at the beginning of the season, a point guard-by-committee approach. The same team that was down to seven healthy scholarship players for long stretches last winter, appears ready to go 10 or 11 deep this year.

"They've got to split up the minutes — I don't how they're going to do that," said sophomore combo guard Byron Ashe. "The roster's so deep this year that everybody has to work so hard in practice. If you don't, you won't play. It's a battle every day."

Ashe, who reached double figures in scoring 11 times last season, will start and see time at both guard spots. The front line could be the biggest the Mount has seen in years, with 7-foot junior Taylor Danaher, 6-11 sixth-year senior Kristijan Krajina, and 6-7 junior Gregory Graves likely to start. Christian has 6-6 sophomore sharpshooter Will Miller coming off the bench, not to mention four freshmen listed at 6-7 or taller.

The same team that got so much mileage out of transfers Whack and Prescott the past two years will be, again, relying on a couple of players who began their college careers elsewhere.

Chris Martin is a 6-2 shooting guard who transferred from Marshall, practiced with the team all of last year, and is expected to provide instant offense off the bench from Game 1. Andrew Smeathers is a 6-7 forward who transferred from Butler in the middle of last season who is expected to start once he is eligible in the ninth game of the season, following NCAA transfer rules.

"Sometimes you've got to get lucky," Christian said. "We've been able to add two guys who are hungry to play, who understand the pressure, who are going to be very valuable to our team. We're fortunate to have them here."

Martin is ready to go after spending all of last season with the team, waiting for his turn.

"I'm really excited to get started," Martin said. "I'm really happy to be out here with these guys. Last year I learned a lot from the three seniors."

The main question mark appears to be at point guard, ably manned by Norfleet the past two years.

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The job may eventually go to 5-5 freshman Lamont Robinson, a fast and athletic player who scored more than 2,500 points in high school and can dunk with both hands, but also the shortest player in Division I.

For now, at least, Christian said he expects Ashe, Robinson, redshirt freshman Charles Glover and sophomore Khalid Nwandu to run the point at various times, bringing their disparate skill sets to the position. Christian said Ashe can be a big-time scorer, Robinson could cause matchup nightmares, Glover has a great understanding of the game, and Nwandu gained experience as the backup point guard last season.

"Obviously we lost the best point guard in the league, but the main point guards we have this year have really stepped up," said Miller, who scored a team-best 21 points in the Mount's NCAA loss to Albany.

The Mount's pressure defense has produced nearly 15 turnovers per game since Christian arrived. But opposing teams have made more than half of their shots over that span, during which time the Mount has been among the NCAA's worst in field-goal percentage defense.

That stat has never particularly bothered Christian because he says if his team makes a 3-pointer and the other team makes an easy 2-pointer, his team wins that possession. Still, with all the size up front, the long arms on the wing and the quickness in the backcourt, Christian expects his team to block more shots and give up fewer layups.

"Part of defense is just athleticism and size," he said.

Danaher (7.1 points, 5.0 rebounds per game), Ashe (7.0 ppg), Graves (6.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Krajina (5.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg), Miller (5.6 ppg) and Nwandu (2.5 ppg) all averaged at least 15 minutes per game a year ago. With the additions of Martin and Smeathers, as well as freshmen like Robinson, the 6-7 Chris Wray and the 6-8 Mawdo Sallah, the players are optimistic that they can keep the momentum going from last year's postseason run, despite the graduation losses and the lowered expectations around the league.

"We can play with a chip on our shoulder and prove some people wrong," Martin said. "We've got the guys to do it ... hopefully we can get another championship."

Christian, whose first two seasons produced a run to the NEC title game and then an NEC championship, knows how to build a team for the postseason. He also knows his team has much to prove between now and then.

It all starts Friday in Tuscon, Arizona.

"We're excited to have the opportunity to play on of the best teams in the country," Christian said. "It's always great when you get a chance to see how the program stacks up."

Reach staff writer Bob Blubaugh at 410-857-7895 or bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.

MSM 2014-15

Coach: Jamion Christian, third year

Last year: 16-17, NEC champions

First game: Friday at No. 2 Arizona, 8

Projected starters: Junior C Taylor Danaher, Senior F Kristijan Krajina, Junior F Gregory Graves, Sophomore G Byron Ashe, Freshman G Lamont Robinson.

Outlook: Coming off an NEC championship and NCAA tournament season, the Mountaineers must replace more than 60 percent of the scoring they lost to graduation. They hope to do it with five players who averaged at least 15 minutes per game a year ago, a pair of transfers expected to make immediate impacts, and a large freshmen class, all of which combine to give the team more size and depth than it has had in years.

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