Guarded Optimism: ULM basketball’s loaded backcourt creating buzz

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MONROE, La. – The gleam in his eye is unmistakable as ULM basketball coach Keith Richard talks up the latest edition of his team.

Richard could see a salty squad coming together in spring recruiting and had his hunch confirmed during summer and preseason workouts.

“This team, maybe more so than any I’ve had in my eight years,’” Richard said, “has more of a Sun Belt look to it.”

Richard has assembled teams with multiple “looks” over the years. His best teams a few years ago were “tall, long and skinny,” particularly across the back line. Last year, he said the Warhawks were a “slower, thicker team” with some muscle but a tendency to be plodding at times.

“This team,” Richard said, “is athletic, fast with a lot of guards, a few bigs inside, much like a lot of the teams in the Sun Belt are. This has a real Sun Belt look and feel to it in a good way.”

Call it guarded optimism, but the 2018-19 Warhawks should have plenty of firepower and be fun to watch this season.

“I think we’ve got really good guards and I think we’ve got more than one,” Richard said. “I think this team is going to be able to score points. It’s going to be a team where we don’t have a lot of scoring droughts. As a coach, it’s a good feeling to think you have a team that can score and put the ball in the basket.”

Last year, ULM finished 16-16 overall, 9-9 in the Sun Belt and reached the conference tournament quarterfinals. They won eight of their last 11 regular-season games and extended their season with a berth in the Tournament, where they lost to Austin Peay in the first round.

From that solid squad, ULM brings back Travis Munnings, a second-team All-Sun Belt selection who led the Warhawks in scoring (15.9 ppg.) and rebounding (7.3 rpg.). He’s a member of the 1,000-point club and a player who has continued to improve through his first three years at ULM.

“I’m so proud of his improvement from his freshman, sophomore and junior years,” Richard said. “He’s having a really good career. There are many days in practice where he looks the way you want a senior all-conference player to look. He’s looked really, really good. I characterize him as a guard too.”

Sophomore Michael Ertel averaged 11.6 points in his debut season and earned Sun Belt Freshman of the Year. He became the first Warhawk to earn the honor since ULM joined the league in 2007-08.

“Being Freshman of the Year and playing the way he did the last half of the season, his confidence has blown sky high,” Richard said. “I’ve had to rein him in some at times. He really looks good and has confidence to score. We’re working with him to be a point guard at times. But his ability and confidence to score is very good.”

A flashy addition to the lineup really has Richard on the edge of his seat and ready to start practicing in earnest on Sunday. The conversation starts with Daishon Smith, a transfer from Wichita State who practiced with the team last season while he sat out. He’s a 6-foot-1 combo guard, who should bring more offensive juice to the backcourt.

Richard said he first saw Smith when he was in junior college and wanted to sign him but he went to Wichita State instead.

“He ended up back with us,” Richard said. “There are going to be some nights he’s going to be the best player on the floor. Maybe not every night, but some nights he will. I think he’s that good.”

ULM’s backcourt depth will also include Brandon Newman (2.2 ppg.), who played about 10 minutes a game last year, Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College transfer JD Williams and Jontray Harris, a senior guard who transferred from Oral Roberts.

Williams, who started his career at UAB, is another scorer while Harris brings a different look as a rebounder and outside shooter.

Richard was expecting to bring back Sam Alabakis (3.2 ppg., 27 starts), but he recently accepted an offer to play professional Australian Rules Football instead.

When ULM needs to have bigger bodies on the court, Richard can deploy 6-8, 210-pound Youry White from Copiah-Lincoln, 6-8, 195-pound Andre Washington from Hill College and 6-7, 190-pound Tyree White from Moberly Area College.

“Those three started off real raw with us and they’re improving daily,” Richard said. “Their improvement will go a long way in helping us in the end. They’re not very physical or thick guys. But they’re good athletes and move up and down the floor easy. They play above the rim easy. For me, they’re good motion players because they go in and out.”

Past years have seen ULM become heavily dependent on launching 3-pointers, which is always risky business. Richard envisions his new-look model attacking the basket off the dribble and opening up a world of offensive possibilities.

“We’ve got speed and good quickness,” Richard said. “We’ll be able to get up and down the floor. We’ll get easy buckets. One of the things that was a struggle until Michael Ertel came of age and started scoring off the dribble, is we had trouble scoring inside the 3-point line. In games we made a bunch of (3-pointers) them and shot well, we won. I’ve got numerous guys who can play off the dribble this year.”

ULM will still have shooters and versatility up and down the roster too.

“In general, I’m very excited about this team,” Richard said. “My enthusiasm has not wavered since last spring. It’s only gotten more. I just think when the dust settles of this season, we’re going to have a nice team.”

Note: The public is invited to attend ULM’s first preseason practice, scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 30 from 4-6:30 p.m. in Fant-Ewing Coliseum.

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