The Radford University men travel to Ohio State on Sunday in game one of three road trips. The contest is slated to be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. On Wednesday, the Highlanders will be in Greenville, N.C. to face East Carolina, and then at Elon on November 22. They return home on November 25 for a visit to the Dedmon Center by James Madison.
The team’s centers will be a two-man wrecking crew with plenty to prove this season.
Randy Phillips, a senior from Jackson, Mississippi, leads the way at the position after starting all 32 games for Coach Jones and company last season.
“Randy started for us last year and did a good job. A lot of times, it takes junior college guys a year to really settle in and I think he’s had one of the best off-seasons of any of our players in terms of understanding what we want to do.”
Phillips’ 6-8, 240-pound frame makes him a force to be reckoned with in the post, even if his stats didn’t always show that in 2016-17. Making his way to Radford from East Central Community College, he averaged 4.6 points and 4.9 rebounds a game while adding 16 blocks and 13 steals.
“He plays with tremendous effort, he’s vocal and just does everything with a lot of energy. We love coaching him because he comes to practice ready to go every day. He’s catching the ball a lot stronger, deeper in the post and finishing a lot better. Right now, he’s the guy that really sets the tone for us defensively and we’re looking for him to step up even more at that center position.”
Alongside Phillips is another 6-8, 240-pound big man, Darius Bolstad.
Bolstad hails from Virginia Beach, Virginia and is aiming to make his junior season the best one yet.
“Darius gave us some great minutes last year. He was good about coming off the bench and finding a way to change to game with his shot blocking ability and we’ll need that again from him this year. He gives us a big presence definitely and when he catches the ball in the sweet spot down low, we feel pretty good about him on the offensive end as well.”
The forward position will feature two returners and two fresh faces. They’re a versatile group that can go one-on-one with the guards and get physical down low with the centers.
“We have a lot more depth at the position than we’ve had in the past,” said Head Coach Mike Jones. “We’ve added a couple of new guys this year that will let us do a lot more with our forwards.”
The Lanham, Md. Native led the Highlanders’ in scoring (11.8 ppg), rebounding (9.5 rpg) and steals (56) while ranking second in blocked shots (30). The work he put in last season led to his inclusion on the 2017-18 Preseason All-Big South Second Team and his coaches fully expect him to live up to that billing.
“Ed has been our leader at forward for the last two seasons and we are looking forward to him having a great year,” noted Coach Jones. “He’s worked really hard and had a great offseason so it all begins with him for us this season.”
From there, the Highlanders are looking for the next man to step up and fill that spot when Polite, Jr. is getting a rest on the bench.
“Tristan has been playing the three (small forward) and the four (power forward) for us this preseason and has shown a lot of promise,” continued Coach Jones. “He’s primarily a three-point shooter, which lets us give opposing defenses a different look than when Ed is on the floor.”
Tristan Owen comes to Radford from St. Petersburg Community College where he played for two seasons and helped the Titans win a state championship. The Orlando, Fla. native averaged 11.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game before being named First Team All-FCSAA as a sophomore.
Behind him is sophomore Devonnte Holland, a 6-7, 240-pound bruiser looking to build upon a freshman campaign in which he made 27 appearances. He pulled down 3.0 rebounds per game and shot an impressive 57-percent from the floor.
“Devonnte has made a really big jump from his freshman year to now,” Coach Jones praised. “He’s probably our best scorer in the post and he’s always been a good rebounder. He’s dropped some weight, changed his body and it has positively impacted him in the way he’s able to player harder for longer periods of time. We’re looking forward to having out on the floor more this year.”
The only true freshman of the group is Leroy Butts IV, a 6-7, 210-pounder that was highly touted out of high school. His path led him through the Elev8 Sports Institute just like teammate Caleb Tanner, but when he left the high school ranks, he was rated a three-start recruit by ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports.
“Leroy is an inside-out type of player that can score on the block, he can shoot and defend on the other end,” said Coach Jones. “He’s a different player from Ed too and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do for us this season.”
It’s a strong group led by one of the top players in the Big South and the forwards should certainly provide plenty of excitement for the Dedmon Center faithful this season.
A nine-member guard unit bring in a lot of wide range of experience and skills on the floor.
The point guard position is key in running a successful team on both ends of the floor and takes on the large task of orchestrating his team. Coach Jones and his staff will put much of that burden on two players.
“Travis and Devin are our primary, true point guards,” said Coach Jones. “They’re both high IQ guys and they can both make shots. We’re really looking for them to manage the team and be the engines that run our transition offense when we push the tempo.”
Travis Fields, Jr., a sophomore from Portsmouth, Va., is a newcomer to the program after transferring in from Old Dominion in Conference USA. He will be eligible to play immediately.
Rotating with Fields, Jr. will be Devin Cooper, a redshirt sophomore who started the first four games of the 2016-17 season before suffering a season ending injury. He did get 13 games under his belt as a freshman which helped him excel in those four starts as a sophomore before the injury occurred.
Joining those two in the backcourt will be a veteran trio of shooting guards.
“On the wings we rely on three guys – Donald, Caleb and Justin,” noted Jones. “It’s a strong group that we can really trust to play hard day-in and day-out.”
Redshirt senior Justin Cousin was one of only two Highlanders to start all 32 games last season. He was a vital piece to the puzzle in every aspect of the game, averaging 11.0 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2 assists per game while adding 19 total steals which ranked third on the team.
Donald Hicks, a sophomore hailing from Chesapeake, started all but two games last season as a true freshman and his trajectory only points up from there.
The Highlanders’ third-leading scorer a season ago, Caleb Tanner was second on the team behind only Cousin in three pointers made with 71. He picked up right where he left off when he went 4-for-4 from behind the arc in Radford’s 106-81 victory over West Virginia State in a preseason exhibition.
“He gives us someone who can hit shots from range and really stretch the floor,” Jones said of the Floyd native.
While some guys have their roles more-or-less etched in stone, others have the ability to be moved around and to give the coaching staff some flexibility when crafting lineups.
“Carlik and Christian give us a lot of versatility. They both have strong decision-making skills, the ability to get in the lane and have both shown improvement from a shooting stand point this offseason.”
Senior Christian Bradford is no stranger to Mike Jones’ system and looks poised to have a big year. Last season, he primarily manned the point guard position and subsequently led the Highlanders in assists with 112 while starting 28 of 32 contests.
Redshirting and saving a season of eligibility last time around, Carlik Jones will finally get an opportunity to put his talents on display.
“We have a long list of guys with the ability to have strong seasons for us this year. It does remain to be seen who will be the next guy to step up, though, behind the older guys.”
Rounding out the unit are freshman Anias Saunders, who will need to discover his place on the roster as the season goes on, and junior John Caldwell who will have to sit out this season after transferring to Radford from Roanoke College.