Montclair State University’s men’s basketball team didn’t get the ending they wanted last season due to coronavirus (COVID-19) protocols, but this season there is new promise and hopes of redemption.
The Red Hawks only had nine New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) games last season due to a shortened season. They recorded a 6-3 record during the regular season, good enough for the third seed in the NJAC Tournament.
They defeated William Patterson University (WPU) in the NJAC quarterfinals and were scheduled to go up against the second-seeded New Jersey City University (NJCU) Gothic Knights in a highly anticipated semifinal matchup. However, that was cut when COVID-19 complications diminished the dreams of the Red Hawks’ quest for an NJAC championship.
For senior guard Devin Cooper, the memory of not being able to finish the season on their terms still looms in his mind, but he is thankful to be on the path toward that opportunity again.
“It weighs on my mind a lot more than people think, honestly,” Cooper said. “Last year we kind of got knocked out [of the playoffs] because of [COVID-19] protocols and stuff like that, so to be able to get back on the court and have an opportunity that we had last year means the world to me and my teammates.”
With COVID-19 restrictions loosening up this season, along with a full schedule of non-conference and conference opponents, head coach Justin Potts is excited for the new challenge that lies ahead.
“I know the guys are excited for sure and it feels good to have a little sense of normalcy,” Potts said. “Obviously, we were in here last year in a very different format, so to have a more traditional start to the season, you know, Oct. 15 is kind of like Christmas Day for these guys. So, I’m really excited. I love the group we have; I’m just looking forward to getting to work.”
Last year, the Red Hawks struggled mightily on offense. They were sixth in the NJAC in field goal percentage (41%) and only shot 29% from downtown. Potts took note of this, went digging and brought in some key additions that can help with their shooting woes.
“One of the things we tried to do was add shooting. We shoot a lot of threes, the lines moving back, so I think that makes an impact obviously on the way the game is being played,” Potts said. “Mike Jackson, who’s a local guy, can really shoot it. Kyree Henry from St. Thomas Aquinas [College] is another guy that shoots it really well. Justin Smith is a kid just across the river from Pennsylvania who had a really good season at Pocono Mountain West [High School]. So, those three guys have what we need in terms of being able to shoot the ball.”
This team will have some new faces but many familiar faces returning as well. Seasoned veterans like senior forward Steve Breeman and senior guard/forward Irving Callender IV, along with junior guard Devin Cooper are amongst some of the players the coaching staff believes can help turn the tide.
However, there is one player that Potts believes has taken the biggest jump, and that is junior guard Keyon Pryce. Pryce started his journey at Montclair State in 2019. He made a huge jump in the 2020-2021 season, going from averaging only two points per game the season prior, to 11 points the next year. He has become a reliable player in clutch situations, hitting big-time shots that aided the Red Hawks in victories.
Pryce is thrilled to get started and couldn’t wait to get back on the court.
“This feels amazing, we’ve been waiting for this since last year,” Pryce said. “We couldn’t wait to get back to the first day of practice because [our] energy is just unmatched.”
The Red Hawks have found ways to improve their roster and have already started building on their team chemistry. Prior to the start of their preseason practices, the team has been waking up early in the morning to work out. With all of the preparation they’ve done since the spring, Cooper has high expectations for this season.
“My expectations are very high. We expect to win an NJAC championship,” Cooper said. “I mean [in terms of] the way we play, we play fast, we play extremely hard and we use a lot of our guys [in the rotation]. So, I’m expecting a fast-paced season, fast-paced games, fast-paced game plan and I think we’re [going to] do great.”
Potts has a similar take on this and believes the sky is the limit for this team.
“Expectations will always be the same while I’m here,” Potts said. “[It’s just a matter of] how good can we be by the time the journey ends.”