An impending decision could determine if the Central Christian College men’s basketball team is simply very good this season or out-of-this-world great.
The Tigers, who open their season Friday night hosting Bethel College at Alexander Arena, are awaiting word from the national higher-ups on whether or not 6-7 senior forward Alonzo Stafford will be granted an extra year of eligibility. If so, he would be one of the nation’s top players after averaging 15.9 points and 7.5 rebounds, not to mention producing a highlight reel of dunks that could wind up on the Sport Center’s Top 10.
Even if Stafford’s request is denied, eighth-year coach Tony Romero — who has averaged nearly 20 wins a year during his tenure — has a team that could approach or exceed last year’s 20 victories.
I checked out the Tigers’ practice on Tuesday and there’s no question they are an experienced team even without freakishly athletic Stafford, who was throwing down windmill dunk after windmill dunk during practice.
Michael Gholston is a silky 6-5 wing with a feathery touch who could be an All-American. He is coming off a junior year in which he averaged 16.7 points and shot 41 percent from 3-point. He makes it look so effortlessly and everyone should emulate his shooting form, it’s perfect.
Daniel Nwosuh, 6-2, enters his fourth year as the starting point guard. He has started 95 of 97 games in his career and is a steady presence. While not a big scorer, he does a great job of getting his teammates involved and is a hard-nosed defender who plays tons of minutes.
Sam Clayborn is another returning starter who is high-energy. He averaged 11.5 points and he’s a springy 6-4, which creates mismatch problems. He can post up guards or shoot from the outside.
Ernest Burton, a 6-4 wing, was last year’s super sub, averaging 11 points and nearly 4 rebounds off the bench. If Stafford isn’t cleared, he’ll probably step right in.
Kendric Warren is back at the post. The 6-7 junior is long and a defensive intimidator. He averaged nearly 7 rebounds last year and scored mostly on put-backs since the Tigers have a plethora of scorers.
Also for the Tigers, 6-1 junior LaDarius Lenard might be ready to make a contribution. He’s been in the JV program for two years and has impressed the coaching staff during the preseason.
Redshirt guard Demetrick Jordan, 6-1 is known for his defensive toughness and could be called on if an opposing guard starts to light it up.
Four sophomores are going to provide depth. Sean Guillory, 6-1, showed signs last year of being a microwave offensively and will be hard to keep on the bench.
Then there’s three soph newcomers who excite Romero — 6-7 transfer Jubril Osagie, 6-6 transfer Steven Kuminga and 6-5 transfer Robert Anakani. They provide Romero with size, athleticism and physicality.
One freshman might bid for the rotation, Romero said. Gabe Gaxiola is a highly competitive 5-9 guard who might be Nwosuh’s understudy.
The Tigers wound up sixth in last year’s NCCAA National Tournament after missing out on qualifying for the NAIA Tournament as they carry dual membership. They are picked No. 2 in the Association of Independent Institution’s preseason poll.
“Last year was a great year for us, we had success and gained a lot of valuable postseason experience,” said Romero, one of the bright young coaches at the NAIA level. “Returning a majority of our production and core group of guys, I am very excited to see how far this group can go. This crop of seniors have been together for four years now and been building towards this season. I feel this group is very eager to prove how much they have grown the last three years and in the offseason. The seniors have taken on great leadership and have made mine and the other coaches' jobs a lot easier. We are having a great time leading this team thus far.”
Romero certainly has tried to schedule up in his tenure and this year’s opposition is upper shelf. In addition to the opener with Bethel, the Tigers also play KCAC members Kansas Wesleyan (two games), Friends, Oklahoma Wesleyan, Bethany College (two games) and of course, the unofficial Mayor’s Cup Game with McPherson College, which this year is on Central’s home court. Also, the Tigers have kept former MCAC rival College of the Ozarks on their schedule for a home-and-home and the Bobcats are generally nationally ranked. Another former arch-rival, Haskell, also plays two games with the Tigers.
As usual, the Tigers will play their usual allotment of exhibition games. They take on Emporia State, Fort Hays State and Oklahoma Christian, games that don’t count toward the record but give the team an idea what the higher level is like. The Tigers also take a trip to Las Vegas this year, where they’ll play two of the top teams in the nation in Dakota Wesleyan and Northwestern Ohio.