Nearly two weeks into preseason basketball practice, second-year North Alabama coach Tony Pujol likes what he’s seeing from the Lions.
Pujol is working with a mix of sophomores who comprised the core of his first team that finished sixth in its first year in the ASUN Conference, and newcomers that include several junior college players. Also, Peyton Youngblood, who missed nearly all of last season, is healthy again.
“The thing that stands out with this team, obviously, is the way they compete,” Pujol said late last week. “They challenge each other every day. That’s been the most fun. Their attention to detail is much better, their maturity.”
Pujol noted that the newcomers are also providing experience and maturity despite being new to the program and his system.
Pujol has built this year’s roster around a solid returning nucleus of starters that includes sophomore guards Jamari Blackmon and Christian Agnew and sophomore post player Manny Littles. Another guard, junior Tavon King, came on strong late last season as he fully recovered from knee surgery. Other returning players include senior post Cameron Diggs, forward Logan Windeler and guard Aleksa Matic.
Newcomers are juco transfer guard C.J. Brim and freshman Austin Meloche, along with forwards Holden Redparth and James Anderson II, and freshman forward Mervin James.
Gone are forwards Cantavio Dutreil and Andrew Morrissey, both of whom who transferred, and graduated seniors DD Smith and Kendall Stafford. The Lions were 10-22 in Pujol’s first season, but were 9-7 in ASUN play.
Street and Smith’s preseason ASUN Conference rankings have the Lions pegged to finish sixth.
Pujol said he likes the way the team has meshed early.
“I think what you are seeing there is the veterans, who are sophomores, have pulled those (new) guys in,” he said. “They realize what their value is to the program. They understand they are the core because they have been in the program for a year. But they also see how those other guys can help them. That’s the part I really have enjoyed with this team – how they have helped each other grow within the program.”
Pujol hasn’t altered practice much in his second season. If anything, he has added more going forward.
“What we are doing is adding on to what we did, but we have to go back to the basics in what we are about and what we are trying to accomplish,” he said. “We have to get back to the ABCs, but then you keep adding.”
Because the team was basically all newcomers a year ago, Pujol said he kept things relatively simple so “the guys could instinctively just play.”
This year he is adding more and giving the veterans more responsibility – “just more information as far as defensive schemes and offensive schemes.”
“So, they’ll have more in their tool box, but I think they can handle that,” he said.
As the Lions count down toward the season opener Nov. 6 at South Carolina, Pujol and his staff of Willie Watson, Ahmad Smith and Tom Berryman are working toward installing as much of the offense and defense as quickly as possible.
“This time of the year you want to get everything in and I am trying to get everything in, but I feel like I’m behind even though I’m not really,” Pujol said. “What I have to do is have a sense of patience with them, so that’s on my part. We have to make sure we are doing the execution part. Our intensity, the competition is at a really high level now. We have to start matching the execution part with that intensity.”