EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final installment of three articles about the start of Hot Springs alum Exavian Christon's second year with the Louisiana Tech men's basketball program.
RUSTON, La. -- Louisiana Tech started its season Tuesday with a road victory against a team from the American Athletic Conference. The team will likely hope the game's result foreshadows the team's success throughout the season.
Head coach Eric Konkol's team was led by a balanced scoring effort in a 71-58 win against the Wichita State Shockers (0-1) in Kansas. Junior guard DaQuan Bracey, the team's leading returning scorer, picked up where he left off last year with a team-high 16 points.
Bracey is the team's No. 1 scoring option at guard, but he has more experienced support in the starting lineup. Amorie Archibald and Hot Springs' Exavian Christon averaged 7.5 and 4.8 points a year ago as freshmen in the team's top rotation.
Christon was efficient on offense last season, shooting 42.2 percent from the field, 32.9 percent on threes and 88 percent on the free throw line, but he attempted less shots than eight of the other nine players with at least 300 minutes. He said he was not timid on offense, but his role was more defense-first.
"It is still defense-first, but now it is just a larger role that I have to fill with a lot of people gone," Christon said. "Last year, coach did not want me worrying about too much. He told me to focus on defense and offense would come to me.
"Whenever it really came to me, that is what I scored off of -- those open opportunities. I did not create a lot off of the dribble, but he wants me to step into that role this year."
"He can push it, he can drive it and he can shoot from the perimeter," Konkol said. "We just want him to keep growing as a basketball player."
Archibald scored 14 points Tuesday at guard with nine rebounds and three assists. Christon was 2-for-3 on 3-pointers, 2-for-3 on free throws and 4-for-7 from the floor for 12 points to go with four rebounds, one steal and one assist.
"I won't force anything crazy, but if it comes down to it where we need something to go down, I am pretty confident that I can be the one to step up and make those plays," Christon said.
Junior forward Oliver Powell scored six points and grabbed seven rebounds. Another sophomore, Anthony Duruji, also started at forward. Senior Jerric Dean has 99 games of experience for the Bulldogs (1-0), but Konkol was able to use him off of the bench Tuesday for 24 minutes.
Dean is the only senior on the roster and Powell is one of only two returning juniors on the roster, along with Bracey. Dean, Powell and Christon were voted last month as the team's captains.
"(Christon) is a guy that we are fully expecting and counting on to help us in a big way this year, just like he did last year, but in an even higher role," Konkol said.
Konkol said the Bulldogs are always built to play an aggressive, attacking style on both offense and defense.
"Every year, we hope to have the type of team where we can be athletic and deep and be able to get the tempo of the game to be our liking, and that is fast-paced," Konkol said. "The injuries and things like that last year changed some of that, but I am excited about the versatility of this team.
"We might be able to do a couple of things on the defensive end and the offensive end to try to take advantage of certain mismatches, be able to switch up some things defensively and use the length and athleticism that we have. We have added some nice pieces to our program that I think will be able to help in that."
Christon said he believes he fits the system well because it is similar to what Hot Springs has employed in four straight appearances in the Class 5A state semifinals under Rodney Echols.
"That is what we were known for," Christon said. "We played pressure defense. We would pick you up full-court and run all over the court. I'm loving it. I feel like I am back in high school again running all over the place and making plays. I feel like I can really thrive in a pressuring defense."
Konkol said he has high expectations for Christon and his 80-inch wingspan.
"On defense, I am either the one pressuring the ball, getting after the ball handler and making him make tough decisions," Christon said. "I also play the second line, which is pretty much like a safety on the court.
"When he makes those decisions, I bounce off of those to get a steal or make it tough for the next person. That is what I thrive on. I think coach figured that out. That is what he wanted me to do."
Nine Conference USA head coach voted for Western Kentucky as the preseason favorite after the Hilltoppers went 27-11 last season and lost in the semifinals of the NIT. They began their season with a 73-55 loss on Tuesday at Washington.
Five other coaches voted Marshall first. The Thundering Herd went 25-11 with a first-round upset of Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament.
Konkol said the league continues to improve in teams 1-14 with several of the top programs returning a number of players this season with experience.
"I think it is going to be one of the strongest years we have had as a league in some time," Konkol said.
The Bulldogs were picked sixth after Old Dominion, North Texas and UT-San Antonio, respectively.
"We do not put a whole lot of stock in where we are picked, whether it is at the top or in the middle or wherever it might be in between," Konkol said. "We have a lot of very competitive guys in that locker room that are proud to be at Louisiana Tech. We want to represent our alumni and our fans very well."
The team has been bolstered by Mubarak Muhammed (6-7, 220), a junior transfer from Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana; Ra'Shawn Langston (6-3, 200), a Jacksonville native and a junior transfer from Connors State College in Oklahoma; and freshman Stacey Thomas (6-8, 220), a forward from Houston. Redshirt sophomore guard Jacolby Pemberton (6-5, 190) returns after averaging 10.3 minutes in 27 games a season ago.
The team used a trip to Costa Rica in the preseason and two scrimmages on the trip in August to grow closer as a team. They then took a 103-58 exhibition victory against Union University a week ago in Ruston.
"We just play simple basketball with everybody making the right plays," Konkol said. "We drive to the hole, kick it out and get an open shot or pass it one more and get an open shot. We just play good basketball. With us playing good basketball, everybody can thrive."
The Bulldogs will be back at the Thomas Assembly Center on Sunday to host Sam Houston State (1-0) at 4 p.m. on Karl Malone Court. The Bearkats won, 85-64, Tuesday in their season-opener against East Texas Baptist, a member of the American Southwest Conference in NCAA Division III.Sports on 11/08/2018
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