Second-year Bulls men's basketball coach Brian Gregory, whose team begins preseason practice in less than a month (Sept. 25), obliged us Thursday with a Q&A in his second-floor office inside the Muma Center. Here are some highlights from the chat:
Is (6-foot-8 sophomore) Alexis Yetna good to go? (The NCAA stripped Yetna of a year of eligibility last winter.)
Any chance he'll get that year back?
"What you end up doing is, as you progress you re-introduce it, and our hope is that we get that year back after he proves he's an honor-roll student here. He's done an unbelievable job, has gained like 27 pounds (currently listed at 228). He had a great redshirt year, but our hope is, down the road to be able to get that year back. And I think the NCAA is trending in those situations."
Has anyone else really transformed their bodies this offseason?
"Yeah. T.J. Lang came here (as an Auburn transfer) at 179 pounds. He's 209 now. The problem is, you wonder where those 30 pounds are because he's still long and lanky, but he's not long, lanky and looks like he hasn't eaten in three weeks. But it's great. It impacted his game; he's a better player because of it.
"You go down the list…we had a great spring with the six guys coming back, and we had a great summer with all 13 guys here. Those other guys have put on weight, their bodies look better. Laquincy (Rideau) is in very good shape, between 205 and 210. For a 6-2 guard that's good size. David (Collins) has put on probably just eight pounds, but he's a pretty physical guard already. And the freshman, Mike Durr, has put on 20 pounds this summer (listed at 240). (Strength and conditioning coach) Zach (Houghton) has done a really good job in the weigh troom and the guys have bought in to how important that is."
You've had tremendous roster turnover in 17 months, probably even by college basketball standards (no one from the Orlando Antigua era remains). Yet you have only two seniors (Lang and C Nikola Scekic). Do you envision some roster stability going forward?
"We signed 16 players in about a 13-month period. I'm not sure anybody's ever had to do that. But as I said as we met last year, there was a strategy to that. We brought in all these players now, the only issue is, no one's been here more than 15 months. So system-wise, culturally, identity-wise, the guys who are supposed to be leading have only been here 12 months longer than the guys who are trying to follow them right now. So you would hope with just two seniors that you're building some stability in this program. And I think we will within the context of the instability of college basketball. And I think we'd be naive to think that we're gonna be any different than what other programs have to go through.
"If you're honest with yourself, there's a constant process of being prepared for the instability that comes with coaching college basketball nowadays, which could become even greater if they ever pass some of the rules that they've talked about passing. But again, we can't control that, so you can only control and focus on the things that you can. We've got 13 players, two of them are seniors. Let's make sure that all 13 are doing what they're supposed to be doing, building it the way we're supposed to be building it, getting guys better. And then if you face some things at the end of the season, you're always gonna be prepared for it."
Just based on what you've seen, what will this team do especially well?
"I do think with 11 players eligible to play, our depth is something that we're gonna have to utilize. I believe that this is a team that will play with greater intensity and greater grit, greater effort on a more consistent basis. I think we'll be much more physical from the guard spot, the wings and the post. We were out-rebounded last year, which is like a mortal sin. Our defensive field-goal percentage was 45 percent, which was not good. Our 3-point field-goal percent defense was good (33 percent). … So that meant we were not physical, tough enough around the basket, and it's just hard to win games if that's the case. And I think we'll play defensively at a (better) intensity level, offensively at a little better pace, closer to where we want to get to."
The non-conference schedule is mostly devoid of what fans would consider a marquee opponent. Are there plans on the horizon to change that?
"Yeah. This will be the last year where we're not in full control of the scheduling. Everybody's gonna play six guarantee games, six one-way games. But the home-and-homes were all set (by a previous staff and administration). … At the end of this year, our contract ends with Charlotte, our contract ends with Appalachian State, our contract ends with Stetson…and FIU. So we have no contractual home-and-homes scheduled that we have to finish out."
Obviously as a coach and team, you go out to win every game. But realistically, is postseason play a reasonable goal for this team?
"I don't think you ever go into the season without saying, 'Okay, our objective is to put ourselves in position to play in the postseason.' Is that a lofty goal in Year Two, in the situation we're in? Yeah, but why not? For me, obviously in our program, we talk about competing every day, we talk about getting better. We talk about if we do the things that we control, we'll be in position to be very successful, and the wins and losses usually take care of themselves."
Among the newcomers, is there — for lack of a better term — a sleeper or under-the-radar guy who possibly could surprise people?
"Those three kids that sat out last year, all dramatically improved in their sit-out year. And they're all gonna be asked to do something quite different than they did (at their previous schools). T.J. was a very specific role player (at Auburn), he's gonna be asked to do a lot more. Laquincy at maybe a little lower level (Gardner-Webb) was asked to do a lot of different things, but we need him to be really good at running the team and scoring from that position. And really, maybe even more so than at Gardner-Webb, really set the tone and tempo for our defense, because one thing he is is a havoc-causing player."