HPU men's hoops builds on Puerto Rico trip

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Oct. 13—HIGH POINT — A week into practice, High Point University men's basketball coach Tubby Smith can see the benefit of playing August scrimmages in Puerto Rico.

The Panthers look more cohesive than they might otherwise a few days after the start of preseason workouts, enabling them to work on their sets instead of basics.

"We still have a lot of work to do, but going to Puerto Rico helped us," Smith said Thursday. "We had all of our scholarship players. We put in our offense earlier, that's why we may look a little smoother, and we put in our defense.

"We've had a change in our strength coach so we still have to get stronger in those areas where we're lacking. We need to be lifting even now. But, I like where we are. I think we're ahead of where we've been in the past because of Puerto Rico. And I think we'll be a better shooting team from what I've seen."

Smith will be seeking to improve upon the nine wins in each of the first two seasons. The Panthers went 9-23 in 2019-20, his first season, and 9-15 last season, which was impacted by players and coaching contracting COVID-19.

HPU returns 10 scholarship players, nine who saw action last season, and added three — a transfer and two freshmen.

"We're still trying to find our identity," Smith said. "I don't think we've found it yet."

The returners are led by last year's leading scorer, John-Michael Wright, a junior who has clearly emerged as the best player from Smith's first recruiting class.

Others back who saw significant minutes last year are senior forward Caden Sanchez, senior wing Rob Peterson, junior point guard Bryant Randleman, junior center Emanuel Izunabor, sophomore forward Alex Holt, and sophomore guards Ahmil Flowers, Jaden House and Bryson Childress. Zach Austin, a forward who redshirted last year, made eye-catching plays in Puerto Rico and is expected to make an impact around the rim.

Wright averaged a team-leading 20.7 ppg last season and was second in rebounding at 5.2 per game.

"He's the straw that stirs the engine, stirs the drink, so he's got to be on top of his game, which he has been the last two years," Smith said. "I hate to think where we would be without him. We almost lost him (to the transfer portal). How he goes is how we'll go. But, we have a lot of people who have improved. A like that they have improved in all phases and Lord knows we had a lot of room to improve.

"But it's going to be the sum of the parts that will equal the whole. Everyone has to do their part and if they do, we'll be a competitive team."

One part currently unable to practice is Flowers, who is recovering from an ACL injury suffered in June.

"He's our best defender so that's going to hurt us," Smith said. "He's supposed to get checked in December. Usually it takes 4-6 months to fully recover but it looks like he's healing extremely well. "

A player now fully healthy is Rob Peterson, who spent part of last season recovering from an injury suffered late in the 2019-20 campaign.

"If we keep Rob healthy, it could make all the difference in the world, because he wasn't healthy half of last season," Smith said. "He had surgery and when he got healthy, he got hurt again. He gives us that basketball IQ that you have to have and brings a toughness to the team."

The three newcomers are graduate transfer David Caraher and freshmen Brock Williams and Jake Koverman.

High Point is the third school for Wesleyan Christian product Caraher, who played his freshman season at Houston Baptist and after sitting out a year, played the last two mostly as a reserve at St. Johns, appearing in all 32 games in 2019-20 and seven last season before withdrawing from the program because of COVID concerns.

Williams, a guard, averaged 28 points per game last season at Burlington Christian after starting his high school career at Greensboro Day.

Koverman, a 6-7 forward, averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds last season for Southern High School in Harwood, Maryland.

"The freshmen still have a lot of growing to do," Smith said. "David, this is his third school. It's tough on a transfer trying to adapt to a new situation, a new coaching staff, a new style of play. He has a ways to go."

The Panthers will publicly take to the court for the first time on Nov. 4 in an exhibition game against Mount Olive on Nov. 4 in the new Qubein Center and will open the season at home Nov. 9 against Division III Shenandoah University.

gsmith@hpenews.com — 336-888-3519 — @HPEgreer

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