Men's basketball season preview

They huddled, they smiled, they laughed, they practiced; this is an ordinary scene for Sonoma State University’s men’s basketball team — a team with only a few short days before their first game of the season against Seattle Pacific.

At Friday’s afternoon practice, calmness reigned supreme. As a whole, from player to player and coach to coach, the team practiced with confidence and poise. 

Without question, this is a special group of athletes. They practice and play for each other, carrying a tradition of culture that Pat Fuscaldo, who enters his 24th season as Sonoma State’s head coach, believes is due to their unwavering support for one another.

“They’re an unselfish team on the court and off the court,” Fuscaldo said. “These guys––they’re amazing. They’re so team-oriented and hold one another accountable and responsible. They’re everything a coach could possibly want from his team.”

The sentiment held by Fuscaldo is also shared by the players themselves, especially Mason Phillips, a fourth-year guard from Redding.

“One thing that I’ve liked about playing here so much is that I’ve never felt like I’ve been on one of these teams and the team wasn’t like my family, and they weren’t my friends,” Phillips said. “It’s a family first kind of thing where we’ve all got each other’s backs, it’s pretty cool.”

With only days away from the season’s start, this year’s squad has a different makeup on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Last year’s team, that finished fourth in the CCAA standings, relied heavily on defense to control the pace of the game, but struggled mightily to stay consistent on offense. 

The defensive-minded Seawolves held opponents to a miniscule 57.8 average points per game – good enough to rank first in all of NCAA Division II basketball. In terms of scoring, Sonoma State finished 294th in average points per game (63.4), something Fuscaldo is optimistic about being different heading into the upcoming season.

“Last year, we held teams to 57 points a game but only scored 63; this meant every game was a grind,” Fuscaldo said. “We were the number one scoring defense for two months in both points and field goal percentage.”

“So now, we come back and we lose four or five guys that were an intricate part of the defense, but we’ve replaced those guys with offensive firepower. So, if we can be decent defensively to decent to good, we should score a lot more points than we did last year,” he said.

With  six seniors’ graduation – center Luke Cochran, forward Nathan Molony-Benjamin, guards Khalid Johnson, Ronnie Harris and Topher Taylor, and leading scorer Jimmy Golden – any number of players will spearhead the 2017-2018 squad, from junior guard Armani Nicolis, forward Jordan Hickman, center Naaman Hightower, guard Davion Mize, forward Jordan Fleck, and Phillips.

Nicolis, a Los Angeles native and fourth-year veteran, will be a vital piece in the quest for a championship. He started in all 29 games for the Seawolves last year, averaging 7.9 points per game, 3.6 rebounds per game, and 25.2 minutes. 

Another player the Seawolves will rely on is Phillips, who started in 28 games and has a knack for shooting three-pointers. He finished the season shooting .39 percent from beyond the arc in 82 attempts. Aside from his shooting prowess, Fuscaldo sees his leadership skills as one of his greatest strengths. 

“Mason’s teams always seem to win; he’s a great leader,” Fuscaldo said. “There’s something to be said for a player like that.”

On the heels of the new season, the tourney-bound team from a year ago will need to navigate a winding road in order to earn consecutive trips back to the Big Dance. Teams like UC San Diego, Chico State, and San Francisco State all stand in the way of Sonoma State’s hunt for a title. Chico State, a division II March Madness quarterfinalist from a season ago, is strong and ready to take the game by storm once again.

“Chico is a fantastic team; I mean, they almost beat Stanford the other night,” Fuscaldo said. “Since they’re such a good team, we always need to play them carefully and make sure we stick to our gameplan.”

To begin the season, Sonoma State will play its first two games against Seattle Pacific and Montana State, with both games slated for noon start times on Friday and Saturday in Hayward. 

Following the games in Hayward, the Seawolves will return to the Wolves’ Den to play in the annual Ron Logsdon Classic, a two-day tournament featuring games against Minnesota State, Dominican University and Fresno Pacific. The tournament will commence at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 17.