CLINTON — Removing five players from your roster before the season has even begun is a problem in the best of circumstances. For a squad that didn't have much experience to begin with, such as the Clinton Community College men's basketball team, such a move has the potential to do a lot of short-term damage.
Joe Shovlain understands that. It also isn't the primary concern of the Cougars' coach. Instead, his eye is on the long-term goals of the Clinton program, which include fielding a roster that succeeds both in the classroom and on the court. If he has to temporarily sacrifice the latter by benching a third of his team to prove how serious he is about the former, that's fine by him.
“I've taken them all out, and I take them out early,” Shovlain said. “Their grades have got to be at our standard, or I'm not going to dress them for games. That's a choice that we're making at Clinton, because we're trying to elevate our program to where they are going to be true student-athletes here.
“Now, is that a hard lesson to learn? I hope some guys learn it and want to do better academically so they can get their jersey on and help us on the floor.”
Until those players make the adjustments in the classroom, Shovlain is prepared to battle with a roster that he believes has talent, but lacks both experience and numbers. Of the 10 players who are eligible to dress for the Cougars, only guards Kimani Stevens and Dione Blyden and center BeeJay Caleb were members of last year's squad, and only Stevens was a starter last season.
Onterier Brown, a transfer from Kirkwood, is the only other player on the active roster who had played a second of college basketball before the Cougars began their season on Tuesday with a 74-58 loss to Black Hawk in Moline. But despite the lack of bodies available, the Cougars believe they can improve on last year's 8-20 mark — and understand that with no set timetable for the missing five players to return, they'll have to overcome the handicap to make that goal a reality.
“With not everybody in it, we have to play with who's committed,” Stevens said. “It's very difficult, but we're going to be playing a lot of minutes and still be into it mentally. We've got to try our hardest no matter what, and if we keep at it and keep getting used to playing so many minutes, we'll definitely improve.”
Of the six eligible freshmen, five hail from Illinois, including 5-foot-8 guard Weston Jones of Fulton. The other four Prairie State natives consist of 5-foot-10 guard Devionce Gogins of Chicago, 6-foot Trevon Gaines of Freeport, 6-foot-5 forward Alonzo Kyles of Summit and 6-foot-8 forward Corey Upchurch of Richton Park. Samuel Bil, a 6-foot-4 forward from Hiawatha, Iowa, rounds out the incoming class.
Shovlain's main concern with the group is its lack of size. Caleb is the only member of the active roster who tops 200 pounds, making him Clinton's only option with enough strength and size to handle the interior. That was a problem in the opener, and the Cougars found that was an easily exposed weakness when Black Hawk pulled away from them after Caleb fouled out early in the second half.
“I've got to learn how to keep my hands off and keep my feet set,” Caleb admitted.
That job would be made easier with the return of sophomores Chris House and Raydell Denis, who check in at 6-foot-9, 250 pounds and 6-foot-8, 205 pounds, respectively. But House, Denis and freshman Devon Collins, Dylan Jones and Shamar Tucker are unavailable for now, leaving the Cougars to work through the lack of numbers and elevate their games to make up for their absences.
If they can achieve that task, Shovlain is confident that the results will eventually come, with or without the return of the players dealing with academics.
“I think we're going to win some games, because we've got some talent,” Shovlain said. “We've got some exciting players to watch, and once we develop some more cohesiveness, understand our offenses, get our presses where we want to be and get away from the drama that's been going on the classroom, we're going to be a better basketball team.”