Mailbag: Early thoughts on who could start for UE, USI men’s basketball and more

EVANSVILLE — We are so back.

Yes, my friends, it is mailbag time. It feels like it’s been a while since I’ve written one of these, and now, as the lede suggests, we’re back. There’s been a lot of fun stuff going on this fall, from the football scene to basketball practices and pretty much everywhere in between.

We have a lot to cover, so let’s get into it.

It’s tough to say since official practices haven’t started and the availability to watch their workouts has been limited to media, so take this with a bit of a grain of salt. That being said, the names I’ve heard the most are Tanner Cuff, Chuck Bailey III and Antonio Thomas.

I was told during his recruitment how high of a priority Cuff was as a target. He committed not too long after his visit over other offers from Vermont and UMBC. I suspect bigger names would have come calling, too. His speed of play is exactly what coach David Ragland and staff want. He has great size for a point guard at 6-foot-6 and can probably play the shooting guard spot, as well.

Evansville’s Head Coach David Ragland gives direction during a timeout as the University of Evansville Purple Aces play the Indiana State University Sycamores at Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.

I’ve touched on Bailey a lot in the past, so I’ll try to keep it brief. We know the caliber of offers he had during his recruitment and how highly touted he was in high school. I think it’s important to remember that he’s also just a freshman and there will be freshman moments. His athleticism and shooting touch, though, look decent.

Thomas is probably an expected guy to be here. He’s the experienced point guard Ragland wanted. His stint in the Missouri Valley Conference at Bradley and his performances at Kentucky Wesleyan give reasons for optimism. Division II transfers can be hit-or-miss, but the MVC has seen its share of successful ones. He has an eye for a pass and can shoot when needed, as well.

I want to shout out Cameron Haffner, as well. His shooting should be a good weapon for the Aces.

What road game do you think the University of Southern Indiana and University of Evansville men’s basketball teams will most look forward to? – Zach F.

There are really only two answers that can go for either respective program — and no, neither involves their games at Southeast Missouri State.

For USI, I can’t really look past Duke. Cameron Indoor Stadium has such a profound aura that few, if any, arenas can compare. That’s no disrespect to Michigan State, but the only one I can compare it to is Allen Fieldhouse at Kansas, where I’ve been fortunate enough to cover a game while I was in college.

I’m going to say BYU for UE. Cincinnati is great and provides a stern test against another Big 12 opponent, but the Purple Aces visited the Bearcats two years ago, albeit with a different coaching staff and an almost entirely different roster. BYU and Provo, Utah, are famed for their men’s basketball atmospheres. You’d think the jump to high-major hoops would only enhance that.

Have the Aces been practicing their “Free Throws” (secret weapon)?? – Harold #1 Aces fan

Yes. That should be an emphasis given UE’s free-throw numbers from last season. The Aces finished ranked 355th in free-throw percentage. There’s plenty of room for growth.

What are your thoughts on sporks? – Adam R.

They’re fine. I don’t think I’ve used one since middle school, though.

Southern Indiana Head Coach Stan Gouard oversees practice at Screaming Eagles Arena Monday afternoon, Sept. 26, 2022.

Southern Indiana Head Coach Stan Gouard oversees practice at Screaming Eagles Arena Monday afternoon, Sept. 26, 2022.

Could we get some preseason updates on which players are standing out so far for USI men and women? – Kent G.

Like I said earlier, it’s tough to say because of how much I’m allowed to see.

Yarin Hasson is a raw prospect but has a lot of upside. If I were a Screaming Eagles fan, I’d be excited about his potential yet remain patient because of some growing pains that may arise. He’s coming from a great player-development program at UConn but also didn’t play much last season. Taking on a larger role might take some time to adjust.

I think the biggest thing I’ve noticed from my glimpses of the men’s team in action is Xavier McCord’s athleticism. You want his 3-point percentage to improve from his junior-college levels, but that’s something he has worked toward fixing. His mid-range game is good.

As for the women’s team, I’d be excited about Ali Saunders. Coming off an All-MVC freshman campaign, she should make an immediate impact. I also think Addy Blackwell’s return will be a nice boost for the team. Her ability to drive to the basket and score despite her size was something the team missed last season.

What’s the origin of the Mayor’s Cup men’s soccer match between UE and USI? – Chad L.

As a soccer guy myself, this game has been among my favorite things to cover in my time in Evansville. It also shows the success and attention that comes when UE and USI play each other (it should be happening in every sport).

The latest edition was Saturday, a 4-0 win for the Aces that may have been more competitive than the score line would suggest.

The two teams have played a home-and-home series since 2003. It started as just a spring game since the programs were in different divisions but has moved to the fall with USI’s D-I transition. Former UE coach Marshall Ray and current USI coach Mat Santoro added the charitable element to the match, with money being raised for the local YMCA.

To me, perhaps the most amazing thing to watch in local sports is a Giulia Cardona serve. Is it known how high she throws the ball? Is there a way to accurately measure? I’m guessing 23 feet above the floor. – Scott W.

This is a fun one.

We don’t know how high Cardona gets the ball. Given the relatively low ceiling at Meeks Family Fieldhouse, I think your 23-foot assessment may be correct, or at least pretty close.

To me, though, just saying that didn’t suffice. I had to do more to get a better answer. So, I stepped in and decided to try to return some of her serves. (There’s a video I attached to the online version of this story).

I received a few UE volleyball questions. Coach Fernando Morales is back with the team after his summer work with the Puerto Rican national team, which saw them make three tournament finals.

Reitz’s Roland Vera Jr. (9) spins to avoid a tackle as the Reitz Panthers play the Vincennes Lincoln Alices at the Reitz Bowl in Evansville, Ind., Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.

Reitz’s Roland Vera Jr. (9) spins to avoid a tackle as the Reitz Panthers play the Vincennes Lincoln Alices at the Reitz Bowl in Evansville, Ind., Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.

What southern Indiana football teams have a legitimate shot at a state championship? – Zach F.

If you look at my predictions record so far, I think it’s fair to say I’m not the person to ask for high school football prophecy.

That being said, I think I have to look at Reitz and Memorial for that title. The Panthers haven’t played to their full offensive potential yet but still haven’t been close to being beaten, in part thanks to their defense. That can only bode well for coach Cory Brunson’s team.

The Tigers have young offensive and defensive lines but have looked much better than expected as we go toward the halfway point of the season. I think the youth in those positions could hurt at some point but it hasn’t yet. Memorial survived a scare against a rebuilding Mater Dei last week, but overall I can’t find much to complain about with the Tigers.

Honorable mentions to Gibson Southern and Heritage Hills.

Do you think the Aces have a top 3 backcourt in the conference with the depth we have in Thomas, Bailey, (Kenny) Strawbridge and (Gage) Bobe? – Chris

To be blunt, no. That’s not to say there won’t be improvements. I think there will be and, frankly, there has to be.

But let’s break this down a bit. Baile is a freshman. As highly touted as he is, it’s hard to know how much that will actually translate. In order for Thomas to be among the best in the MVC, you’re asking him to improve his previous MVC numbers by a lot. Bobe is largely a 3-point threat and a decent one at that, having finished with the second-best perimeter shooting percentage in the conference. Strawbridge makes this a discussion worth pondering, but his 3-point percentage needs to improve if you want to put UE’s backcourt in that conversation.

Let’s go a little further. I looked at the returners and key transfers across the MVC to see where the Aces stand. I specifically looked at points, assists and efficiency to form my personal opinions. I didn’t include freshmen or returning walk-ons.

Evansville’s Kenny Strawbridge Jr. (20) drives to the net as the University of Evansville Purple Aces play the University of Illinois at Chicago Flames at Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

Evansville’s Kenny Strawbridge Jr. (20) drives to the net as the University of Evansville Purple Aces play the University of Illinois at Chicago Flames at Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

Here’s how I ranked the MVC backcourts:

  1. Drake

  2. Belmont

  3. Indiana State

  4. Northern Iowa

  5. Bradley

  6. Missouri State

  7. Murray State

  8. Southern Illinois

  9. Evansville

  10. Illinois State

  11. Illinois-Chicago

  12. Valparaiso

UE women’s update? – Multiple readers

The Aces’ women’s team is a bit of a mystery to this point. The biggest thing I can say is Kynidi Mason Striverson and Barbora Tomancova will be crucial pieces to their success. Given the turnover, some transfers and freshmen will have big roles.

Coach Robyn Scherr-Wells seems confident. She’s a good recruiter and improved UE’s results in each of her two seasons. Given the roster turnover, which included forward Abby Feit’s transfer to Missouri, I don’t think a step back is out of the question. But Scherr-Wells’ track record of improving speaks for itself. The newcomers look to have some potential, which is exciting for the brand she wants to play. It should be an interesting team playing at Meeks Family Fieldhouse this season.

Early projections on men’s starting lineups? – Multiple readers

I’m happy this says “early” because that’s what it is: Very early. A lot can change. I want to be clear that neither coach has said this to me, so this is completely based on my vibes. But alas, let’s take a shot at it.

UE: Tanner Cuff, Chuck Bailey III, Kenny Strawbridge Jr., Yacine Toumi, Sekou Kalle

USI: Jack Campion, Jordan Tillmon, Xavier McCord, Yarin Hasson, Nolan Causwell

Let’s break down why…

Starting with UE, I went with Tanner Cuff as the starting point guard because of his pace of play and his size for the position. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Antonio Thomas gets the. I also wouldn’t be stunned if we saw them on the floor together. Having more than one ball handler is never a bad thing.

I also picked Bailey over Haffner. This one was really more of a coin flip. I’ve heard a lot of good things about both. The rest was fairly straightforward, though I wouldn’t be stunned to see someone starting over Kalle to offer more of a 3-point threat. I could genuinely see three of my picks being wrong. It’s tough when there are so many newcomers but most of the main contributors are still around.

I’m more confident about my USI prediction. Campion was the starting point guard for the later stages of last season and I see no reason that should change. Tillmon’s speak for themselves. McCord’s athleticism and midrange game are what got him in my lineup. Hasson should work well as a stretch four but could be a little raw, so I wouldn’t be stunned to see Jack Mielke or Kiyron Powell start some games. Causwell has the ability to stretch the floor and step out for an occasional 3-pointer, though you’d like to see his perimeter shooting numbers improve from last season.

(UE is) hosting the postseason MVC tournament this year, which is a big opportunity/step for (UE). What are the odds that UE could either win the regular season, the postseason tournament or make it to the NCAA tournament? – Darren R.

The Aces return a strong core of players, particularly throughout the infield. Chase Hug, Kip Fougerrouse, Simon Scherry and Brent Widder are all back. Top pitcher Nick Smith and standout outfielder Mark Shallenberger are back, too. Last season’s team, led mainly by this core group, was one game away from winning the MVC Tournament and making an NCAA regional. Another year together could give them what they need to get over that hump.

There’s a decent crop of newcomers as well. Freshman BJ Peart comes with a good reputation and coach Wes Carroll added a strong transfer class.

Carroll is, as he was last season, very excited about the possibilities. On paper, UE should be among the MVC favorites along with Indiana State and Missouri State. Should this team stay healthy, which was a key issue last year, and play to its potential, an at-large NCAA tournament bid isn’t impossible. The coaching staff is excited about the non-conference schedule that should put the Aces in a good position if results go their way.

This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Mailbag: Early thoughts on Evansville, USI basketball and more

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