What’s left, for the Newman men’s basketball team, is an uphill battle.
All involved know that’s the case — and all involved seem more than willing to take on the challenge that comes with trying to recover a season after starting 3-8, and 0-3 in the Heartland Conference one year after the Jets’ first NCAA Division II Tournament appearance.
“It hasn’t gone as good this year,” Newman coach Mark Potter said. “And a big part of it has been our schedule, which has been brutal.”
With an almost entirely new lineup, the Jets have only played in two guaranteed games so far — wins over NAIA schools Manhattan Christian and Bethel — and closed out their games before the break by going winless in five December games, finishing things out with an 89-70 loss at St. Edward’s. All five games were also on the road.
Newman played its first three games at home, then played seven of its last eight on the road.
Potter suggested that in the future Newman could explore hosting a Christmas invitational to avoid such scenarios, although losses to Rogers State, McMurry and St. Edward’s were all Heartland games that couldn’t be avoided.
It’s the polar opposite to last year’s start, when Newman went into the break 9-1 and ranked in the Division II Top 25. The Jets also went 4-0 against Kansas’ four MIAA schools — Pittsburg State, Washburn, Fort Hays State and Emporia State — for the first time in school history.
This season, Newman went 1-3 against the MIAA, the only victory coming against Pittsburg State on Nov. 13. The Jets are also struggling to get stops — they’re 10th in the Heartland Conference in scoring defense at 81.4 points per game.
“Maybe it’s chemistry, because we’ve got a lot of new guys, but in my opinion our biggest problem has been on the defensive end,” Newman senior guard Trae Beck said. “Offensively, everybody seems to know their role and what they need to do, but our problem is we’re trying to trade buckets when we’re in a hole and that’s not gonna work. We need to play a whole game of defense, getting stops and rebounding.”
Injuries have hurt Newman’s cause, decimating what looked like a solid frontcourt. Oral Roberts transfer Kris Obaseki, 6-foot-9, battled back from a knee injury in the preseason only to suffer a concussion in his first start against Fort Hays State and his return date isn’t known yet.
Another 6-9 post, Josh Walker, has been hobbled by an ankle injury that has made him ineffective (1.7 points, 2.1 rebounds).
Senior forward Marquis Cuyler missed much of the preseason after knee surgery and isn’t back to 100 percent.
“It’s not anything you can control,” Potter said. “And it can’t be a crutch for us, something for us to point to as an excuse. It’s put us in some unique situations as far as who plays where, and it’s frustrating, but we have to keep moving forward.”
One bright spot has been the play of junior transfer Jeremy Espinoza, a 6-4 forward from Northern Oklahoma-Enid. Espinoza leads the Jets with 12.1 points and 6.0 rebounds and was chosen Heartland player of the week on Dec. 16.
“(Espinoza) has brought it every single night,” Potter said. “He hasn’t shot it incredibly well yet but he is a special player. It’s too bad we don’t have a little more help for him in the post right now. The hardest part for all of us is just going to be to keep working and doing what we can to salvage the season ... when people think we’re not capable of turning things around, hopefully that’s when we’ll be at our best.”
Newman’s first practice after the break is Sunday and they return to action on Jan. 4, hosting Oklahoma Panhandle State in the first of three straight Heartland games at home.
“One of our main issues has been learning how to play together because we’re a whole new team,” Espinoza said. “Everything is brand new. Right now, we‘re getting to the spot where people are starting to know each other better and get more confidence in each other. I think we can still turn things around, we’ve just got to start off right next semester and go from there.
“Whatever, whoever we have to work with we’ve got to find a way to dig deep and pick up some wins.”