The Valdosta Daily Times
After a disappointing 2011-12 season, the Valdosta State men’s basketball team is looking for a bounce back season in 2012-13.
That bounce back starts tonight when the Blazers host Point (Ga.) University at the P.E. Complex. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m.
The Blazers finished last season with a dismal 11-16 record, the worst season under head coach Mike Helfer.
Of the 16 losses, 13 were by double digits, including an 83-52 loss to eighth-ranked Christian Brothers in the Gulf South Conference Tournament.
“Each year brings a lot of optimism and hope,” Helfer said. “Basically, you have to have the right mix of kids out there and the right system and if you do you can be successful. We’ve done that many times here at Valdosta State; last year we just didn’t do it.
“I hope people will come out and support us with these new kids and a new year and we’ll see where it goes. It doesn’t mean it is going to be all easy going, there are going to be some bumps in the road, but I’m going to make sure we come out and play as hard we can and play as together as we can.”
This year, the Helfer is hoping for different, positive results with his new team, which features 12 new players and just one returner. That returner is two-year starting forward Josh Sparks, one of the most recognizable athletes at Valdosta State.
“(Sparks) has grown both on the court and off the field,” Helfer said. “He has become a very good leader. I think he’s increased his energy level, in all aspects of the game, which I think was one of his weaknesses. I expect, Josh to have a very, very good senior year.”
Last year, Sparks averaged 9.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, while managing to block 73 shots, which led the conference.
One criticism on Sparks has been his inability to score from multiple areas on the floor, something Helfer says he’s addressed.
“He has worked hard to score from multiple areas from the floor,” Helfer said. “What he’s done is he’s expanded his abilities at the offensive end.”
With the new team, Helfer says he has been pushing team unity and playing together as one collective unit. That’s why Helfer didn’t nominate any of his new players for the GSC’s Top Newcomers List.
“I definitely think this is a close group,” Helfer said. “We’re still learning about each other’s strengths and weaknesses for the most part, and I think that will take some time, but from a mental standpoint, everyone is more interested in the team than themselves. That was very important.”
Among the newcomers is senior forward James Anacreon (6-foot-7), a transfer from Wichita State. In 12 games at Wichita last year, Anacreon shot 50 percent from the floor, grabbing 16 rebounds and recording three blocks and have steals.
Anacreon will rotate in at forward with junior Alan Love (6-foot-6), sophomore Colin Cook (6-foot-8), junior Josh Haskins (6-foot-11) and junior David Murray (6-foot-4).
At guard junior Demetris Allen (6-foot-3), senior Shaquille Harris (6-foot-1), and junior Patrick Diop (6-foot-3) are all listed on the roster, along with freshmen Norman Taylor (6-foot) — of Valdosta High School.
“A lot of guys are going to play a lot of minutes,” Helfer said. “When you are out on the floor, you have to make sure you contribute. It is not really about who’s starting; it is about who’s contributing, maybe who is doing things we want done on the floor. Sometimes, you might get seven or eight kids that can start and some kids just have to come off the bench and play.”
Following tonight’s game against Point, the Blazers will host the Langdale Honda Kia Classic, set for Nov. 16-17 at the P.E. Complex. In the tournament, the Blazers will host Carver College and Florida Memorial, both teams they beat last year.
VSU will also face Albany State (Nov. 20) and Lynn (Nov. 24) before heading on the road for the first time this season.
“Anytime you can play in the Complex, that is an advantage,” Helfer said. “We had some return games that we have to play here at home. So, we were able to find the time here in the schedule, at the beginning, because our league has expanded so much. But, we are excited about playing in the Complex in front of our fans.”
The Blazers open Gulf South Conference play Nov. 29 at Union University and will also face North Alabama Dec. 1. They will return to league play Jan. 3 against rival Alabama-Huntsville before hosting conference newcomer Shorter Jan 4.
Once again, the GSC is expected to be on the toughest conferences in the nation.
“(Wednesday), Christian Brothers was tied with the University of Memphis with five minutes to go,” Helfer said, pointing out the tough competition. “Huntsville has most of their kids back; I think they’re great coaches in our league; I think Shorter is a great addition to our league; I think Union is a great addition.
“I think it is going to help our league, from a competitive standpoint. But again, if we are going to call ourselves one of the best Division II conferences in the country, then we should expect to have great teams.”
With all the great teams inside the GSC and with the large amount of turnover for the Blazers this season, Valdosta State was picked to finish sixth in the conference this season, something Helfer doesn’t buy too much into.
“I think a lot of preseason polls are based on who you have coming back,” Helfer said. “Even when we were picked high in past years, I didn’t pay much attention to it. We haven’t focused on that at all. We’re just trying to focus on game one.”