Experienced Islanders men begin practice aiming for return trip to NCAA Tournament

Under the shadow of two new banners hanging in their fieldhouse, the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi men's basketball team officially started practice last week with the highest expectations the program has had in several years.

The Islanders went 23-12 and made an unexpected run to the NCAA Tournament last season, thanks to a charge to the Southland Conference Tournament in coach Steve Lutz's first season.

As one of nine teams in the country that did not have a scholarship player enter the transfer portal, the Islanders returned every player on their roster that still had eligibility, a rarity in modern Division I basketball.

One season after having to cobble together a roster in a narrow window in the coaching staff's first season, A&M-Corpus Christi has the luxury of continuity and a team that understands what it takes to play on college basketball's biggest stage.

"I feel like it isn't just about making the NCAA Tournament this season," Texas A&M-Corpus Christi guard Simeon Fryer said. "We know we can make it. It is about making it and seeing how far we can go. The group of guys we have and the people in this program are capable of anything. We have to work hard, stay in the gym and keep grinding."

Fryer, who is using his last year of eligibility after gaining a year due to COVID-19, joins De'Lazarus Keys in their third season with the program.

Keys said this year will be more of a challenge despite the team's familiarity because teams will be taking aim at the Islanders after their NCAA appearance.

A 2022 NCAA tournament banner hangs in the Islanders field house at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi, Sept. 28, 2022.
A 2022 NCAA tournament banner hangs in the Islanders field house at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi, Sept. 28, 2022.

"The continuity means a lot," said Keys, who averaged 7.8 points and 5.9 rebounds last season. "For us to have the same people coming back and to have Owen (Dease) and Jas (Sangha) come back from injuries and on the court with us, it is amazing. The new kids can contribute and mesh with us. They give us energy, we help them get better and they help us get better. It is great.

"We have to know that we have a target on our chests. Everyone knows that we won last year. Everyone knows we are trying to repeat. Starting from the jump, we have to play hard and know that everyone is coming to beat us."

The Islanders are one of three teams in the country (Dayton, TCU) that have both their starting five returning intact and their top five scorers back.

Lutz, who is starting his second year at the helm, said he felt the team would be further along than it has shown at the start of official practices, but noted the effort has been there.

Head Coach Steve Lutz blocks Isaac Mushila during Islanders basketball practice Wednesday morning at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi, Sept. 28, 2022.
Head Coach Steve Lutz blocks Isaac Mushila during Islanders basketball practice Wednesday morning at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi, Sept. 28, 2022.

"We see flashes of it where guys are very comfortable with what we are doing both offensively and defensively, but right now because we do have some new faces that will get on the floor for us, we are just not there yet," Lutz said. "It is not something I feel like we have to push the panic button on, but I thought we'd be a little further along at this point.

"I do like the fact that the experience is there. We just have to start playing the way we did last year and executing the way we did last year."

Despite having an almost entirely new roster last season, A&M-Corpus Christi excelled early with the program's best start (10-2) and setting a record with 11 nonconference wins.

A five-game slide in the middle of Southland Conference play threatened to derail a strong debut season under Lutz, but the Islanders rebounded to earn the No. 4 seed for the conference tournament and won three games in Katy to make it's second NCAA Tournament.

Lutz said winning the Southland regular season title is still the team's first goal.

Jalen Jackson shoots during Islanders basketball practice Wednesday morning at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi, Sept. 28, 2022.
Jalen Jackson shoots during Islanders basketball practice Wednesday morning at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi, Sept. 28, 2022.

"I think this group has worked hard," Lutz said. "I thought we had a great July. June was a little lackluster, but practices have been good. Since we've been back for school, we've given effort and attacked our goal. I keep reminding them, we didn't win the conference last year. We were fourth in the league. We won the conference tournament.

"Our goal is never going to change. We want to win the league. We want to win the tournament. And then we want to go to the NCAA Tournament and win."

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi opens the regular season at Mississippi State on Nov. 7 with its home opener on Nov. 11 against UTSA at the Dugan Wellness Center.

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Experienced Islanders men aiming for return trip to NCAA Tournament