College Basketball: Livingstone men are ready for a big season

Published 11:46 pm Wednesday, November 20, 2019

By David Shaw

SALISBURY — The new season arrives stamped with an expiration date for Livingstone’s men’s basketball team.

There’s a sense of urgency hovering at New Trent Gym — and  a strong hope that 2019-20 will signal a return to prominence for the sniffing-the-top Blue Bears.

“Yes, but the proof will be in the results,” warned longtime coach James Stinson. “What we want is to play on Saturday night in Charlotte, North Carolina.”

Competing for a CIAA tournament championship at the Spectrum Center is just one of the goals Livingstone hopes to achieve. First up is a Southern Division title, where the Blue Bears are pre-season favorites. Last up are berths in the Division II regionals and nationals. The next three months provide an opportunity the program hasn’t known since its prolific, 2014-16 heyday.

“We want more that just CIAA wins this year,” said senior guard Roger Ray, a 5-9 sparkplug who is honing in on Livingstone’s career scoring record. “We want national attention.”

Much will hinge on Ray’s demonstrated ability to shoot, penetrate and dish. As one of 10 returning lettermen from a 17-12/9-9 team that reached the league semifinals, he’s already the school’s all-time assist leader and needs 78 points to surpass Jeff Pearsall’s scoring mark of 1,464 set in 1993.

Last winter Ray averaged 21.3 points-per-game and 6.2 assists, good enough for second in the conference in both categories, and earned all-conference honors for the second time.

“But more than that, he just wants to win so bad,” Stinson said. “Last year, he felt we got close, but not close enough. This year is another step forward. He’s making better decisions and trying to get everybody involved.”

Among the supporting cast are 6-9 twin towers Lydell and Navar Elmore, 6-7 junior forward Malik Smith and sophomore guard Cameron Carpenter. Lydell Elmore is a returning all-CIAA pick averaging a team-best 21 points and 13 rebounds per night in LC’s impressive 3-1 start. Known for his volcanic dunks, he’s shooting 63 percent from the field.

“I feel like we’re ready for this,” said the elastic, 200-pound forward. “We’ve got enough experience to go far. It’s kind of a win-it-or-nothing season.”

Navar Elmore has been less productive, but just as spectacular. He’s contributing 11 points and 9.8 rebounds per game — and heads the SWAT team with seven blocked shots. Stinson believes assertive play by the Elmores — recruited three years ago, out of Branchville, S.C., just south of Orangeburg — can make or break Livingstone’s season.

“We can’t continue to knock at the door,” he said. “We have to use the key sooner or later. They are the key.”

Smith, part of Livingstone’s Flint, Mich. pipeline, may be the team’s most overlooked player. A former tight end who chose basketball over football, his ruggedness has been on display through four games (7.5 ppg/8.3 rpg/16 personal fouls).

“When he rebounds with two hands, he’s tenacious on the boards,” Stinson said. “If he can get 12 or 13 rebounds, he can score 10 or 12 points. This year, he’s really developed his 15-footer and extended it out to the three.”

So what’s missing in Smith’s game?

“The last step is maturity,” he acknowledged. “I need to be mentally stronger and become a leader on this team.”

Carpenter gives the Blue Bears a sharp-eyed distributor in the backcourt. He started 17 games a year ago and was third on the team with 43 assists. “His job has been to get the ball to other guys,” Stinson said. “We’ll be asking him to do a lot more this season.”

Livingstone boasts a couple of instant-energy reserves in 6-3 seniors Jalen Fykes and Martel Handley. “Both of them are big, big keys,” Stinson noted.

Fykes played about seven minutes a game last season and shot 49 percent from the field. “That’s his game,” Stinson said. “He hasn’t taken many threes, but that’s what he did in junior college. We want him to extend his game.”

Handley appeared in all 29 games last season and made his mark as a defensive agitator. “Martel will defend 94 feet, get in the passing lanes and get steals,” Stinson explained.

Not to be ignored is sophomore O’Koye Parker, a 6-3 guard whom Stinson likens to former Detroit Pistons sixth-man Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson. Apparently, Parker heats things up. Senior ballhandler Anthony Tate and 6-8 wide-body Malik Dupree are valuable pieces off the bench, as are the seven first-year players Stinson has enrolled.

“Should be interesting,” said Stinson, now in his 16th year at Livingstone. “We look good now, but it’ll be a matter of putting 40 minutes together every time out. We know it’s not where they pick you to finish that’s important. It’s where you finish.”

And only the last Saturday in February knows that.

NOTES: Livingstone opens its conference season tonight at Virginia Union and hosts Bowie State on Monday. … Stinson has 492 career coaching wins, including 220 at LC. … The Blue Bears lost, 75-65, to eventual champion Virginia State in last season’s CIAA semifinals.