The VSU men’s basketball team is making their final preparations as the season draws near.
The Blazers will tip off their season in the Division II Tip Off Classic in Lakeland, Florida, against Lincoln Memorial on Nov. 5 at 3:30 p.m. and then Hillsdale College on Nov. 6 at 3:30 p.m.
The Blazers come into the new season after going 11-16 (7-13 Gulf South Conference) in the 2021-22 season. It marked the first time since the 2014-15 season that the Blazers finished below .500.
Still, the Blazers return seven players, including four of the top five scorers, and have brought in eight more players this offseason. Head coach Mike Helfer thinks that the new players will help fix a variety of issues that plagued the team last season.
“We tried to get players that were diverse,” Helfer said. “We tried to get a diverse group to come in because, you know, we needed to fill in some places across the board. So that’s kind of what we were looking for as we recruited throughout this past year.”
One of the most prominent issues was consistency from beyond the arc. While the Blazers shot a respectable 36.2% from range last season, the team went cold during the back half of the schedule.
Helfer believes 3-point shooting has become one of the most important aspects to winning games.
“I just think the game has changed so much over the years, especially recently,” Helfer said. “I mean, you have to be, you know, respectable from the 3-point line, I think, to have a successful season. I think we found guys that can do that, and some of our returners have really worked hard to improve that aspect of their game.”
The Blazers have been picked to finish third in the GSC via the GSC Preseason Coaches’ Poll. Though the team has high expectations, Helfer believes there isn’t much pressure on the team heading into the season.
“I don’t think you feel pressure from the standpoint of expectations,” Helfer said. “You know, I think the pressure comes from just wanting to win and compete for a championship. Now, a lot of people might say those are the same thing, but, you know, I think that expectations are usually put on, you know, teams that have a lot of returners.”
However, to meet those expectations, the Blazers will have to mesh together. Helfer thinks that the recruiting effort has helped ease the process.
“I think every coach has the same question or dilemma, or however you want to say it. It is how will they mesh,” Helfer said. “I think a lot of that goes back to your recruiting, to pay attention to the personality of players, their attitude, things that are not measured on the statistics side of it. “
As for their season, the Blazers face an uphill climb right out the gate. After their stint in Lakeland, the Blazers will travel to Pensacola, Florida, to play in the GSC/SIAC (Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) Regional Challenge on Nov. 12-13.
“We play Lincoln Memorial and Hillsdale, and both of those are traditionally Elite Eight type teams, Final Four type teams,” Helfer said. “It won’t be games that you walk into, and you got to be ready to go. The next weekend, we play on the road and play Clark Atlanta and Fort Valley State, and those will be difficult games.”
Additionally, the GSC schedule offers no favors. The conference slate has expanded from 20 games to 24 games.
Still, Helfer is ready for the grind.
“You’ve got to be mentally prepared for a grind. Because every conference game is going to be a grind,” Helfer said. “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be difficult. I think you’ve got to prepare yourself mentally to accept that and go after that.”
Most importantly, Helfer is hoping to see improvement over the course of the season rather than letting a tough early stretch serve as a measuring stick.
“I think sometimes you can measure yourself incorrectly in the early games because it does take a while for teams to sometimes find their identity when you’re blending new guys together,” Helfer said. “I hope we’re not as good as we’re going to be at the beginning of the year. I hope we’re as good as we’re going to be at the end of the year.”
Written by Austin Bruce, Sports Editor. Photo courtesy of Nia Thompson, Spectator Reporter.