EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Stan Gouard understands the importance of this summer.
There’s increased attention on the University of Southern Indiana men’s basketball program. Gouard is reminded of that every time he looks down at the court in Screaming Eagles Arena and sees a bright, new Ohio Valley Conference logo.
Excitement continues to grow in the community as USI prepares for its inaugural season in Division I. Gouard can feel it. It’s why these next six and a half weeks of practices are going to be so crucial. This summer could set the tone for the season.
“We’re doing something totally different as we transition to Division I,” Gouard said. “We’ve got to train the mind and body right now. This summer will be huge for us just in terms of team unity and camaraderie.”
From an almost entirely new roster to a scheduling update, here’s an offseason check-in with USI.
Transfers highlight new-look roster
Only five players from last season’s team — Jelani Simmons, Jacob Polakovich, Tyler Henry, Isaiah Swope and Jack Mielke — still remain on the roster today.
Eight of USI’s 13 scholarships will be filled by newcomers. Gouard and staff attacked the transfer portal by landing six players from other schools. The Eagles’ gained two from the Big Ten — grad transfer forward Trevor Lakes (Nebraska) and freshman forward Peter Nwoke (Michigan State) — and two others with Division I experience in sophomore center Nick Hittle (Indiana State) and sophomore guard Jeremiah Hernandez (Kent State).
The Eagles also landed a pair of junior-college transfers in junior guard Gary Solomon (Henry Ford College) and sophomore guard Ryan Hall (Iowa Lakes). Plus, two recent high school grads in Jack Campion and AJ Smith.
“We had a lot of guys who had an interest in us but then when we talked about the four-year NCAA Tournament ban with the transition, we lost a lot of guys,” Gouard said. “But the guys that we have want to be here. These guys are working hard and so far they’re a pretty tight-knit group.”
USI also will have two walk-on spots. One of those positions will be filled by sophomore guard Sam Mervis, who joins the Eagles from Indiana State. Gouard said he’s still looking at who would be the best fit for the other.
Road heavy non-con schedule could pay dividends
Scheduling was certain to be a challenge as a new addition to D-I. Most schools had already filled a majority of their dates for the upcoming season by the time USI announced its move in February.
While Gouard said the complete schedule should be released in the next couple of weeks, he provided a bit of insight into what that non-conference slate will look like.
That won’t include a crosstown showdown with the University of Evansville, at least not this upcoming season.
“(UE coach David Ragland) and I have already had a conversation. When the time is right, we’re going to do it,” Gouard said. “I know the city wants it and we both want it. But with the timing of this year, I don’t think we’re both ready for that right now.”
The Eagles will play five home non-conference games with only one of those coming against a D-I opponent — USI is only permitted to have four non D-I games. Gouard confirmed USI will host Indiana State in December, news first reported by Todd Golden of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star last week.
Otherwise, USI will be on the road for the start of its first D-I season. That includes a multi-team event in which the Eagles will face three different opponents.
Gouard anticipates more teams coming to Evansville in 2023-24, though.
While USI isn’t eligible for the NCAA tournament or the NIT, a strong year could land the Eagles a spot in the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) postseason tournament. The CBI selects 16 teams and there’s a $50,000 entry fee.
“We’ve already begun to invest some money in the CBI,” Gouard said. “If we do our part on the basketball court, that will be our postseason.”
Eight weeks to get acclimated
USI officially began summer practices last week and ultimately will be on campus for eight weeks of workouts until the end of July.
The Eagles are allotted eight hours of training per week. Four of them are used on the court, the other four are in the weight room. These first four weeks will be used to work on defense while the rest will mostly involve offensive drills.
While Gouard wants to see growth in their individual abilities, he hopes they get accustomed to playing with one another. It’s key for each player to understand how their teammates work because they have so many new faces.
That often starts off the court. This Tuesday, they went to Buffalo Wild Wings for lunch and spent a couple of hours getting to know each other.
“I think the biggest thing is that our guys have to get to know each other outside of the lines,” Gouard said. “These guys are a good group.”
Contact Courier & Press sports reporter Hendrix Magley via email at [email protected] or via Twitter @TweetsOfHendrix.
Southern Indiana basketball returns to USI for summer workouts