When the men’s basketball season tips off Tuesday, the Jays’ starting lineup will feature none of the five that started the Sweet 16 March Madness game against Gonzaga.
In fact, only seven of the 15 players on coach Greg McDermott’s roster this season are returners from last year’s historically successful team, three of which saw more than 30 minutes on the court throughout the season.
This offseason the Jays lost their main front court offensive producers in Marcus Zegarowski, Mitch Ballock, Damien Jefferson and Denzel Mahoney to professional ball while also losing names like Christian Bishop and Antwann Jones to the transfer portal.
However, despite losing all of his biggest pieces in the offseason, McDermott bounced back by bringing in a freshman recruiting class that was ranked the seventh best in all of college basketball by 247Sports.
The ranking is the best-ever in program history and puts the Jays ahead of powerhouses like Kansas, Kentucky and any other Big East opponent.
Highlighting the freshman class are four four-star recruits, all of whom are ranked in the ESPN100 ranking of the 100 best recruits in the class of 2021.
Closest to the top of the ESPN100 list for the Jays is forward Arthur Kaluma who ranks at No. 48, the highest individual recruitment ranking in this the eleventh season of the Greg McDermott era.
Kaluma played amongst professionals at the AfroBasket African continental championship with the Ugandan National Team over the summer where he averaged 13.2 points per game.
Other freshmen also in the ESPN100 that are expected to make big strides for the Bluejays this season are guards Trey Alexander (57), Ryan Nembhard (62) and forward Mason Miller (88).
“It’s amazing; we’ve got a bunch of guys who are hungry and ready to work,” Nembhard said of being a part of the historic signing class. “We’re all ready for the challenge and we’re excited.”
Nembhard notably also played international basketball this summer for the Canada U19’s in the U19 World Cup, placing runner-up to the USA U19’s and sophomore teammate Ryan Kalkbrennner, the projected starting big man for the Jays.
“Any time you can go for gold, that’s just more confidence,” Kalkbrenner said in September. “If I can win on the national level, we can win here.”
Other key additions to the team include two hidden gems of graduate senior transfers from smaller schools.
KeyShawn Feazell transfers in from McNeese State where he averaged a double-double last season. Ryan Hawkins, a three time All-MIAA teamer, comes in from Northwest Missouri State where he averaged 22.6 points per game leading the Bearcats to a DII national title last year.
With such a young team with so many newcomers and no fourth-year seniors, the question of what player will step up to be a leader looms large.
“Hawkins has been a god-send in that regard,” McDermott said. “He’s an elite communicator and he sets a great example for those young guys, not just on game night but on a daily basis at practice.”
Feazell, Kalkbrenner, junior guard Alex O’Connell and sophomore guard Shereef Mitchell also all have many college basketball minutes under their belts that they can use to help guide the younger Jays.
Nonetheless, with such an inexperienced team, growing pains will be evident throughout the season.
Despite finishing last season at No. 19 on the AP Poll, the Jays didn’t receive any votes in this season’s preseason poll and were tabbed at eighth of eleven in the Big East Preseason Coaches Poll.
“We will have to be a little bit more patient with mistakes because there is a learning curve, there’s a learning curve for everybody,” McDermott said.
Leading up to the season the common message Nembhard, Kalkbrenner and others reiterated was to everyday get better to work out the growing pains.
The quicker the team can do that, the quicker they can get to playing at the highest level with the skill they have.
After a couple months of practicing together, the Jays will officially kick off their season Tuesday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff at the CHI Health Center Omaha at 7 p.m.