By Micheal Ives
Mick Durham is turning around the Alaska Nanooks men’s basketball team. Last season was the first time since 2006 that the team broke double-digits in wins, let alone finish with a winning record. In those 5 years of play, including Durham’s inaugural 2011-12 season at UAF with an inherited team, the Nanooks were 33-97 (winning .254%). Even more painful was conference play as the ‘Nooks during that period had only 16 GNAC wins in 82 contests.
The 2012-13 Nanooks under Coach Durham were a different, brilliant breed. They finished the year 16-12 overall (winning .571%) and were 10-8 in GNAC action. They famously knocked off the reigning DII champion Western Washington Vikings and gained their first ticket to GNAC postseason play (on the same evening, in fact). WWU came into Fairbanks with a title belt, an unbeaten season record of 24-0, and a 30-game win streak…and left shocked by a 77-73 Nanook bullying.
Here are three reasons why the 2013-14 Nanooks can be the GNAC’s top squad:
- Top-Notch Coaching
- A Roster Built for Success
- Taking Advantage of Conference Turnover
I’m a big Mick Durham fan. I believe he is overqualified for his current position and could easily be coaching a winning DI program somewhere. But he chose the Nanooks. And UAF fans should be stoked he did.
Durham is a former point guard (4th all-time in assists and FT% at Montana State) and has a wealth of top-level coaching experience. He coached at his alma mater for 16 seasons, notching a Big Sky Conference record 246 wins and winning the conference Coach of the Year award three times (1996, 2002, and 2005). He also led the MSU Bobcats to a pair of Big Sky titles and a birth in the 1996 NCAA Tournament. Mick went March Madness (falling to the Syracuse Orange).
Coach Durham went 5-23 his first year at UAF with a team he inherited from former HC Clemon Johnson. In year two, Durham gutted the team (returning only 3 athletes) and recruited a team that made one of the biggest turnarounds in DII hoops history. Yep, Coach Durham is a fantastic recruiter, as well. Mick not only excels in basketball knowledge (I can personally attest to his being a hoops nerd, respectfully), but also is a great communicator. This helps him in teaching and conveying skills on the hardwood and in drawing quality student-athletes to the program. Coach Durham has the knowledge and personality to create a winning atmosphere…something the UAF hoops program was in desperate need of.
A Roster Built for Success
The Nanooks projected starting lineup is scary and gorgeous.
- PG- Pat Voeut (Sr.)
- SG- Ronnie Baker (Sr.)
- SF- Stefan Tica (Sr.)
- PF- Andrew Kelly (Sr.)
- C- Sergej Pucar (Sr.)
That’s right. Five seniors starting for the ‘Nooks. Dom Brinson and his team-leading 12.4 ppg are gone, but Alaska returns 46.7 ppg with Voeut, Baker, Tica, Kelly, and Pucar.
Pat Voeut is an unassuming ball-a-holic who burst onto the GNAC scene as one of Mick Durham’s big signings last year. After winning a couple Red Lion GNAC Player of the Week awards in 2012, Voeut slowed slightly as the season progressed but finished well enough to earn an Honorable Mention selection to the All-Conference team. Voeut was second to Brinson in team scoring with 11.5 ppg while leading the team in assists (150) and steals (46). His 5.4 assists-per-game were second in the GNAC and his 1.6 steals-per-game placed him third. He was also Top-25 in scoring. While opposing defenses seemed to find ways to slow and frustrate Voeut as last season wore on, this year finds him with teammate chemistry and a leadership role that can only advance his production. If Pat Voeut can overcome his random dips in confidence and letting game frustrations show in his on-court play…the sky is the limit for Voeut and this Nanook team.
Ronnie Baker has the size and strength at the 2-guard spot that coaches on all levels drool over. This coming season is Baker’s chance to become a Bankstown hero. A versatile player, Baker was Top-10 in GNAC steals (1.3 spg) and had 13 double-digit scoring games to go with a few double-digit rebound contests. Baker can do it all on the court (hit the three, attack off the dribble, post smaller SG’s, play tough defense, rebound) but must learn to do it all with just a bit more control and finesse. He has periods of explosiveness that are nearly unstoppable…followed by bouts of mental letdown and lacking attention to detail. Baker has the talent to be a nightmare for opponents on both ends, and I think this is the year we see it all start to come together for Mr. Baker. Finding the right times to strike…and knowing when to defer and not do “too much” will dictate his future success. With an increase in playing time and a bigger role, the kid from Vallejo, California will be given the opportunity to shine. He will.
Stefan Tica. Oh, Stefan Tica. Super smart guy (named Dr. Wood Scholar-Athlete). Super streaky shooter. Tica came into 2012-13 as a preseason All-GNAC pick. Cold shooting and a lack of confidence found Tica sliding into a new role on the team. Coach Durham moved Tica to a sixth-man role, having Stefan as the first player off the bench and responsible for adding a scoring punch to the bench unit. His scoring average dropped from 14.6 ppg in his sophomore campaign, to 8.6 ppg off the bench as a junior. Tica has a a chance to make back up that 6 ppg, and then some, as he returns to a starting role as a senior and leader of this team. Tica, when on, is deadly. He has a quick trigger and can fire effectively while coming off multiple screens both on and off-ball. He must find a way to keep the shooter’s confidence that every time he fires…it’s going down. He can expand his game and make this UAF team that much nastier if he can maintain defensive focus and intensity while finding ways to benefit the squad when NOT sinking distance looks. If Stefan can add a reliable dribble-drive/separation move and know to move the rock to his teammates when defenses start focusing on chasing him down, than everyone improves.
Andrew Kelly is my favorite player on this team. Not just because we both attended the little Community College in the desert (Chandler-Gilbert CC in Arizona), but because he does all the things that make coaches and hoops nerds, well…nerd out! Kelly scored 7 ppg while leading the Nanooks in rebounding and blocked shots with 6.9 rpg and 33 blocks, respectively. Kelly did this in only 22 minutes-per-game of action in a reserve role. It is how Kelly uses his size that makes him so deadly. At 6’7″ he has the quickness and agility to make life tough on the opposition. He uses his basketball smarts to know where and when to be in order to make big plays. He ups the ante on defense, a sensation that was palpable in the Patty Center every time he touched the floor last year. While most of the other Nanooks need to rein it in a bit and make smarter decisions, Kelly actually needs to be a bit more selfish to help the ‘Nooks. He shot 60% from the field last year, and 70% from the free throw line, which screams for more usage and attempts. Kelly keeps his stellar FG% by contributing put-back buckets at the rim and routinely beating the opponents down court on the break. However, his game can be much more than that as Kelly has the ability to step out and hit the mid-range jumper, as well as the handles and speed to abuse defending PF’s with a quick assault to the hoop. If any player is going to make huge strides this season and really surprise folks around the GNAC, it’s Andrew Kelly. We won’t be all too surprised.
There is nothing nicer in college basketball than having a dominant center with actual big-man size. The Nanooks Sergej Pucar is that guy! At 6’11” and a stout 265 lbs. Pucar creates match-up problems every time he pulls on the Alaska jersey. Apart from his obvious size and strength, Pucar brings some “Euro-big” style play to UAF as he combines a high hoops IQ with a shooting stroke uncommon in men of his size and lumbering look. Averaging 10.8 ppg and 6.6 rpg last season, Pucar was actually the ‘Nooks best 3-pt shooter (knocking down 33 on the year at a 42% clip). When Sergej is hitting from distance, the entire court opens up for Alaska and other players take advantage. Pucar is also an underrated passer and defender. He can find open cutters and shooters from the high-post and beams passes ambidextrously for open looks at the bucket. Defensively, the addition of Kelly next to him in the lineup makes this a fearsome frontcourt. Kelly’s speed, defensive acuity, and hustle will fit perfectly with Pucar down low. Expect quite a few thunder rejections thanks to some help defense in the paint. Pucar’s weakness was on display in the home UAA loss from last year. In a game that UAF was controlling, the constant pesky defense of the Seawolves finally frustrated Pucar to the point of losing control. He elbowed a UAA player in the face, drawing a technical foul and effectively flipping the game’s momentum. UAA would cruise on to the win. Sergej has to understand that being a big man in hoops isn’t easy (ask Shaq about hacks!) and that every team that squares off with UAF knows their best option to “quiet” Pucar is by trying to shake his mental focus. As a senior this coming season, Sergej will be ready and prepared (and have the teammates to back him) to punish opponents and keep THEM frustrated in Fairbanks.
The bench depth this coming season will be different and diverse…and could take a bit of steadying early before the ship is smoothly underway. Returning senior PF Dallen Bills brings back his bruising play and 6’5″ and 210 lbs. of strength around the hoop. New recruits from the junior and community college ranks include junior guards Rashaad Allen and Joe Slocum. Allen, who went to high school in California with Nanooks starter Ronnie Baker, lit up the junior college level with 12.4 ppg and drilled 42% of his 3-pt attempts. The precision shooting of Allen will fit nicely with Slocum’s unselfish play. Slocum at 6’3″ has nice size for the position, and his 2.8 assist/turnover ratio is promising. Former West Valley HS star John Renfro returns to Fairbanks after two years with DI Southern Utah. Renfro will be asked to use his 6’7″ frame with Bills in the paint to spell the Kelly/Pucar frontcourt. Finally, 6’1″ guards Cody Pierson (Soph.) and Damon Cikanek (Fr.) will have chances to contribute in spurts and earn more playing time. Pierson played well in very limited minutes last year, become something of a crowd favorite, and Cikanek hails from Anchorage’s Dimond HS where he led the team with 19 ppg and was named 4A First Team All-State.
Five returning seniors in the starting lineup who should have nice chemistry. An unselfish point guard who is one of the best players in the conference. A handful of deadly outside shooters and shot-creators. Throw in a defensive anchor and a “do-it-all-and-more” center with size and strength. Yep, this Nanook team has a chance to be really tough.
Taking Advantage of Conference Turnover
The GNAC is arguably the strongest DII conference in the country. However, after a two year run by Western Washington that saw them claim the 2012 DII National Championship and a 2013 DII Final Four appearance, the GNAC is ripe for the picking in 2013-14 thanks to many of the impact players moving on.
With studs John Allen and Paul Jones leaving WWU, the Vikings find themselves with a solid team but far from the dominant team of the previous 2 years. Fellow GNAC 2013 First Teamer Jarrell Crayton leaves MSU-Billings and we will get to see some new sheriffs in town.
I believe that three teams this year can challenge the Nanooks for GNAC supremacy:
- Seattle-Pacific has a formidable “Big 3″ in senior (2013 GNAC First Team) guard David Downs, senior forward Patrick Simon, and junior guard/forward Riley Stockton. They play well-coached, high IQ basketball, but could struggle this year against the size and versatility of Alaska’s Sergej Pucar. Simon and a 6’8″ starting center will be tasked with containing the big guy from inside and out…and keeping him off the glass. Good luck. This team will miss the 6’11” and 255 lbs. bulk of Andy Poling around the rim and the deadeye shooting/explosive scoring of Jobi Wall.
- Central Washington has likely the best player in the GNAC this coming season in senior guard Mark McLaughlin. In his inaugural GNAC season, the 6’6″ McLaughlin destroyed his way to a conference First Team selection and averaged almost 23 ppg. He teams with Dom Williams and Kevin Davis to make the WIldcats a worthy opponent. How far can McLaughlin take this team?
- While we still don’t know what the heck Seawolves even are (sorry….had to), we do know that they seem to have our number on the hardwood as of late. Star guard Kyle Fossman returns with fellow guard Teancum Stafford as UAA’s top scorers from last season. However, the Seawolves will have to make up for the losses of “do-it-all” guy Abebe Demissie and their only true, experienced big in 6’11” Liam Gibcus. There goes their size and their 1st and 3rd leading rebounders from 2012-13 (and 3rd and 4th leading scorers). I believe fully that UAF has a better complete team and should beat UAA this year, but those ‘Wolves have found ways to beat the ‘Nooks both at home and in the Patty Center. Back to Sergej Pucar’s mental breakdown mentioned earlier in this piece and his game-changing elbow against UAA last year, this Anchorage team has found a way to get under the Nanooks fur and create wins. They are very well-coached and the Nanooks will have to improve their mental toughness to reverse this trend.
The 2013-14 Nanooks men’s basketball season kicks off November 8th at the Patty Center. Let’s see if the reigning GNAC Coach of the Year can lead this talented Nanooks squad, and the hoops program, to the promised land.