In Mark Potter’s office hangs a replica of the Century II basketball court, Newman’s home for much of its NAIA tenure. A few steps away, his team is practicing in Fugate Gymnasium, its home as a member of NCAA Division II.
The changes range far beyond home-court geography and they continue to shape Newman basketball in ways Potter is still understanding.
“Every single day that I’m out in the public, there’s a complete different respect for Newman because we’re NCAA,” Potter said. “I coached in the NAIA and I played in the NAIA, back in the days when everybody was NAIA. It’s so different now.”
Potter witnessed those changes as a Newman player in the 1980s and as coach since 1998. The Jets joined NCAA Division II in 2008 and played in the NCAA South Central Regional in 2013. He is still adjusting his recruiting strategy to fit and is seeing his ability to recruit high school players improve as Newman’s reputation as an NCAA school grows.
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“You try and get the word out that you’re NCAA Division II,” Potter said. “Around Wichita and Kansas, people knew. Outside of our state, it took a little while for people to understand that. We were mostly a transfer school, up until these last couple years when we’re now able to start to get some incoming freshmen.”
The Jets will rely on transfers this season, especially in the frontcourt. Newman’s top four scorers — including forward Gavin Thurman and guard Jalen Love — are gone. Newman went 17-13 last season, 9-11 in the Heartland Conference to finish eighth in the 11-team conference.
Center Daniel Green (6-foot-10), a transfer from Arkansas-Little Rock, started his career at Wake Forest and dealt with knee injuries at both stops. Forward Andre Sands (6-7), a former Sunrise Christian Academy athlete, averaged 3.7 points in 32 games last season at Sam Houston State. A knee injury has kept him from practicing, although Potter remains hopeful he will return. Senior point guard Pierre Hayden (5-7) is a transfer from Hampton whom Potter is counting on to push the pace and provide a mentor for younger guards.
Green played in 15 of the final 16 games for Arkansas-Little Rock last season, including an NCAA Tournament win over Purdue. In two seasons at Wake Forest, he played in 31 games.
“We’ve really struggled getting size through the years,” Potter said. “There just aren’t a lot of 6-10 guys at the Division II level that can play a little bit. Daniel’s going to be a good one, although obviously we’ve got to keep them all healthy.”
Senior guard Daniel Nwosu (10.1 points) started seven games last season. Senior guard Taylor Scheiber, from Derby, averaged 7.5 points and made 40.2 percent of his three-pointers. Junior forward Kevin Bryant (3.3 points) is valued for his disruptive skills on defense and his rebounding. Bryant’s mentality fits with Potter’s desire to improve his team’s toughness and desire on defense.
“We don’t bring back a ton of guys, but those three are really good players,” Potter said. “I’ve never had a player that plays as hard as (Bryant) does, as consistent as he does. He just creates havoc on the defensive end.”
Potter is starting to see recruiting success pay off with his freshmen, highlighted by forward Jacob Birnbaum (6-6) from Ponca City, Okla., and guard Allen Wilson (6-2). Wilson is a Minnesotan and assistant coach R.J. Allen’s ties to that area helped land him. Potter said the Jets have four scholarship offers out to four high school seniors.
“We’ve got two players who will play a lot of minutes as freshmen this year, and that’s never happened,” he said. “We’re trying to go that route.”
With almost a decade as an NCAA member behind him, Newman athletic director Vic Trilli knows where his department needs to go in the next 10 years. Many of Newman’s 18 athletic teams squeeze game and practices into one gym. For example, the basketball teams sometimes practice at Bishop Carroll or private gyms. Restrooms are needed at the baseball/softball complex, an area’s that been updated with dugouts, scoreboards and fencing since Trilli arrived.
“The recruiting game is all about facilities,” Trilli said. “The next fundraiser we do on this campus is going to be to address the needs of athletic facilities. I have one gym — do you know how hard that is in the winter?”
Those issues are all part of the lengthy step up to NCAA Division II. Trilli said the department didn’t use graduate assistants when he arrived. Now almost every spot has one or two on staff. Newman’s Jet Open golf tournament raised $38,000 when Trilli arrived in 2008. The most recent tournament raised $119,000, part of what Trilli says is around $350,000 in fundraising done by coaches and the department.
Men’s and women’s basketball are the only programs using the NCAA Division II limit for scholarships — 10 scholarships, which can be divided among athletes.
The Jets play Fort Hays State on Nov. 22 at home and Trilli knows the game will attract a larger-than-normal crowd. Last season’s game against Pittsburg State drew an announced attendance of 950 fans, more than double Newman’s average. On Dec. 3, Newman plays at Washburn, its last road game in the state of Kansas for the season.
Trilli would love to find or build a conference better-suited to Newman. The Heartland’s 10 other schools are in Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma.
The MIAA — home to Kansas’ four other NCAA Division II schools — requires football for membership. For the benefit of fans, travel and media attention, Trilli hopes that the MIAA, a 14-team conference with schools in Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma, will change its stance.
“The MIAA schools travel right through here to get to Oklahoma City,” Trilli said. “That’s something I think could change in time — I’d love to see it happen before I quit. Where the NCAA comes to its senses and says ‘This is what this conference needs to be.’ We’re all members of the same association. What’s the right thing to do here?”