State Colleges

Mark Potter optimistic about Newman’s basketball future despite recent struggles

Newman basketball coach Mark Potter works with his team during a practice before the season.
Newman basketball coach Mark Potter works with his team during a practice before the season. The Wichita Eagle

By the time the Newman men’s basketball team’s losing streak reached five games on Jan. 30, and with eight regular-season games still left to play, the Jets could already count themselves out of the Heartland Conference title race.

A three-game losing streak two weeks later eliminated any hope of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. A loss in the Heartland tournament semifinals on March 5 ended the Jets’ season with a 17-13 record, including a 9-11 mark in the Heartland.

At eighth place in the league, it was the third year in a row the Jets have finished seventh place or worse. It is the worst stretch for Newman and 18th-year coach Mark Potter since moving to NCAA Division II in 2007-2008.

All of those things, put together, might make it seem like Newman is in a rut just three seasons removed from its lone NCAA Tournament bid in 2013.

Potter disagrees.

“I don’t think that’s fair, because I know what goes on internally, and personally I feel like we’re a basketball team on the verge of being really good,” Potter said. “I don’t see it as a rut.

“Does it look like we underachieved? Sure. But there were a few things that happened … take them out and nobody is asking these questions.”

The addition of two one-year Division I transfers in Missouri State’s Gavin Thurman and Denver’s Jalen Love provided few dividends. The two Wichita natives piled up big statistics – Thurman led the Jets with 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds, while Love led the team at 3.0 assists and was third with 11.2 points – but few big wins.

“I’m still pleased with Jalen and Gavin,” Potter said. “Our conference was as good as it’s ever been. “

A season-ending concussion suffered by 6-foot-6 junior forward Andrew Berry on Dec. 2 decimated Newman’s frontcourt depth. Even more damaging was the loss of junior guard Jarvis Williams for three games from Jan. 23 to Feb. 6 — part of an undetermined suspension after Williams’ arrest on suspicion of domestic battery on Jan. 24, followed immediately by Williams leaving the team for an undisclosed period after the death of his grandmother in Mississippi.

Williams started all 17 games for the Jets before his suspension and when he left the team, he was averaging 11.0 points and 2.4 assists. Williams returned in a win over Lubbock Christian and averaged 10.2 points over Newman’s final eight games. But he never started again, and the Jets went 0-3 without him.

Williams’ pleaded no contest to an amended charge of disorderly conduct on March 11.

Potter declined comment on Williams’ arrest, which was first reported by Newman’s student newspaper, The Vantage. Potter did confirm Williams won’t return to the team next season.

Newman loses its top four scorers – Thurman, James Pegues, Love and Williams combined to average 50.8 points and 16.6 rebounds. Only two players return who played significant minutes in Daniel Nwosu (10.1 points) and Derby product Taylor Schieber (7.5 points).

Potter has signed one player so far in 6-6 Ponca City (Okla.) High forward Jacob Birnbaum, who averaged 11.7 points this season. Newman’s coaching staff thinks Birnbaum is a player who could compete for a spot in the rotation right away.

“Even though we haven’t gone back (to the NCAA Tournament) in three years, that’s still the goal every year,” Potter said. “I’m still going to go out and try to find players that are the right fit for Newman University and make us the best basketball team we can be. We’ve been working hard on the recruiting trail, and hopefully that will pay some dividends.”

It’s not just Newman’s men’s team that has struggled — the women’s team went 12-15 and 6-12 in Heartland play. They finished under .500 for the second straight season and in eighth place for the second straight season. Fourth-year coach Darin Spence has just one winning season in his tenure — a 16-11 record in 2013-14.

“Are we disappointed? Yes,” Newman athletic director Vic Trilli said. “ Did we have full teams? No. Was our men’s team dealt two major blows this year? Yes. But somehow both teams managed to keep it together, to stay competitive.The women’s team lost three girls to ACL tears … our men are two close losses away from still being up for an at-large bid.

“I really feel like both teams, considering the hands they were dealt, did the best they could in less-than-ideal situations.”

Tony Adame: 316-268-6284, @t_adame