SHEPHERDSTOWN – After completing its first 20-win season since 1992, Shepherd men’s basketball may have accomplished the kind of breakthrough season necessary to take the program to the next level.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Rams will return three of their top-four scorers next year, as well as bring back a pair of strong contributors who missed much of this past season due to injury.
Shepherd (20-10, 14-8 Mountain East Conference) finished the regular season tied for third in the conference and earned a first-round home playoff game against Concord, which the Rams won. After missing a last-second shot, Shepherd was ousted from the Mountain East Conference tournament March 7 following a 74-72 loss to Glenville State in the quarterfinals in Charleston.
That early exit from the postseason conference tournament, coupled with a few tough late regular-season losses, cost the Rams the school’s first berth in the NCAA Division II tournament. But with much of the team’s nucleus set to return next fall, and fourth-year head coach Justin Namolik high on what could be his best recruiting class to date, the Rams appear poised to make noise again a year from now.
“To be honest, I don’t expect anything different next year,” Namolik said. “To get into the NCAAs, we’ll have to have over 20 wins and I think we can do that with who we have coming back and if we bring in who we want to bring in.”
Despite losing starting forward Logan Holloman (elbow) and key off-the-bench contributor Skyler Roman (knee) to early season injuries, Shepherd won 12 of its first 15 games and quickly established itself among the Mountain East’s likely contenders. Senior guards Brantley Osborne and Marcus Pilgrim provided leadership for much of the season, while junior guard Austin Cunningham, junior forward Morgan McDonald and freshman Naim Muhammad also factored heavily after starting all 30 games.
Osborne led the Rams in scoring with 19.1 points per game, followed by Cunningham (16), McDonald (13.4) and Muhammad (11). Senior forward Kevin Jones (10) and Pilgrim (10.5) also scored double-digits, with McDonald leading the team in rebounds with 9.9 per game.
“Looking back, losing Logan and Skyler at the beginning of the year I think wore on us as the year went along,” Namolik said. “We had some guys playing some major minutes and I think that caught up with us. Brantley struggled shooting down the stretch and I think that is attributable to him playing 37-38 minutes a game.
“The other thing was the whole year we were in second or third place,” Namolik added. “I think it was the first time in a long time where we had the target on our back for a lot of games. I think that is something new for us that we’re going to have to learn how to deal with. Getting the best game from a lot of teams. That’s just something that comes with it and we’ll have to learn and grow from.”
Riding a three-gaming winning streak in late February, the Rams were seeded No. 5 in the region, placing them on the bubble for a possible berth in the NCAA Division II playoffs. But Shepherd dropped the last two games of the regular season, including a 74-72 setback at Fairmont State in the season finale.
The Rams also lost a heartbreaker in overtime to the Falcons on Jan. 23 in Shepherdstown after leading Fairmont State by double digits in the first half.
“Those two close games with Fairmont killed us,” Namolik said. “We had some other close games where we didn’t play particularly well either.
“But we return three of our top four scorers,” he added. “We get Logan and Skyler back. We’ve had two commitments already and we’re looking to get two more of our top recruits. If we get that this will probably be the best recruiting class I’ve had at Shepherd.”
Namolik said the Rams also struggled at times this season after putting in a new motion offense to accompany the press style of defense they implemented the previous year.
“The kids are going to get better from playing the same style,” he said. “That was something for me that I was searching for. What is our niche as a team? And I think I finally found that.”