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College Basketball: Baker welcomes nine newcomers to Catawba

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
SALISBURY — Stacks of basketballs commemorating past SAC championships stretch nearly to the ceiling in Catawba coach Jim Baker’s small office.
There’s still room for a few more, however, and the coach behind the desk is smiling wider than you’d expect a guy coming off a 9-18 season to be smiling.
Especially a coach who said goodbye not only to the usual graduates but to a sophomore who was his go-to guy.
The bad news first. The next jumper Keon Moore drills will be for Division I Winthrop. The No. 12 scorer in Division II last winter, Moore elected to take a detour from a road that was leading directly to the Catawba Hall of Fame.
Catawba also lost promising point guard Conor Strickland to transfer, so why isn’t Baker wearing out numerous boxes of Kleenex?
Well, mostly it’s because of a recruiting class that is potentially one of the best in school history.
“It’s the biggest group we’ve ever brought in,” said Baker, who is preparing for his 19th season. “It’s going to be a little wild with so many new guys competing for playing time, but I’m excited.”
Counting Nick Houston, the former Carson sharpshooter who redshirted his first year, there will be nine new faces.
Some of the newcomers were landed through standard recruiting diligence, while others sort of fell into Catawba’s lap through luck. Most have a connection to a previous member of the program.
The list includes forwards Julian Sampah (6-7), Vismantas Marijosius (6-foot-6), and Shannon Dillard (6-4), and guards Chance Rucker (6-3), Reggie Perkins (6-1), Elon Edwards (5-11), Davis Emerson (5-11) and Michael Coleman (5-11).
Sampah (Greensboro Day) and Rucker (Concord) are regarded by Baker as rangy, program-changing athletes.
Sampah didn’t put up earth-shaking statistics, but he played on a balanced high school team what went 31-4 and was one of the state’s best squads.
“Sampah will be as athletic as any big kid we’ve ever had here,” Baker said.
Rucker, who will be a junior, made a roundabout trip to Salisbury.
He had major-school dreams coming out of high school, but first he had to elevate his test scores. He did that at Massanutten Military Academy, where he averaged 22 points per game.
After a layover at Benedict in South Carolina, Rucker landed with the Indians.
“He’s long, athletic and he can defend,” Baker said. “He’s an impact guy.”
People who follow area prep basketball already are familiar with Dillard, a smooth, springy power forward who can score in bunches and rebound. He played in the East-West All-Star Game.
Dillard fell to Catawba because he made a qualifying SAT score late. Other coaches who had recruited him thought he was going to have to go the junior-college route.
Dillard may redshirt as a freshman. That depends on whether Kelvin Drakeford, a graduate who still has a year of basketball eligibility, elects to return.
“We really don’t want to waste a year for Shannon playing him four or five minutes a game,” Baker said.
Marijosius is a native of Lithuania, but he played locally at North Hills Christian. He’s skilled and aggressive.
“He’s a guy who can make open shots, but he’s also that guy who will do the dirty work and defend bigger opponents,” Baker said.
Perkins, who was committed to Western Carolina at one time, went to Western Guilford High, but he played last season at Phillips Exeter, a New Hampshire prep school.
“He played against a high level of competition up there,” Baker said. “He’s a lefty and a good athlete.”
Baker practically gushes about point guard recruits Edwards (Greenville Rose) and Coleman (Lancaster, Va.).
Edwards, a terrific triple jumper, didn’t shoot well in the East-West All-Star Game, but he competed relentlessly and showed super quickness.
“He’s quick on quick,” Baker said. “And he’s kind of got that good cockiness, that fearlessness that Dominick Reid had when he was here. He’s got a lot of pep, a lot of bounce to his game.”
It won’t hurt that Edwards is best friends with Tyrece Little, the talented big man from Greenville who is Catawba’s best returning player.
Coleman is a leader, ballhandler and 3-point shooter who steered his high school team to Virginia’s 2A state title. In the championship game, Coleman hit four 3-pointers and scored 24 points.
Emerson will be at Catawba on an academic scholarship, but he was a fine player at Lake Norman High and should contribute.
One more “newcomer” should be mentioned. Hard-working big man Maurice Knight will be back after blowing out a knee in January.
“When we lost Mo in the Brevard game, that’s where it went south for us,” Baker said. “Losing him was a big reason we lost eight games we were leading in the last three minutes. The other reason we struggled is we just weren’t athletic enough last year.”
With this class, that should no longer be a problem.

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