The Penn State Altoona men's basketball team had its best season ever in 2017-18. The Lions set a new team record for the most wins in a season with 17, and the squad tied for third place in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference's regular season standings with a 13-5 record in the league. Penn State Altoona qualified for two postseason tournaments for the second consecutive year, earning berths to the AMCC Tournament and the Eastern College Athletic Conference's Division III Championship Tournament.
This year, the Lions hope to find ways to continue that momentum and keep moving in the right direction. Third-year head coach David McGreal recognizes that will be a challenge, especially considering the loss of last year's exceptional trio of seniors: Ishimeal Nance, Dequan Jackson, and Rich Bouknight. Those players were the Lions' top three scorers, combining for 49.3 points per game. Nance, last season's AMCC Player of the Year and the conference's leading scorer, represents the team's biggest loss from that group.
But McGreal believes that, with hard work, this season's team can find ways to make up for the players they have lost and create their own identity in the process.
"Coming off last year's successful season, as far as win totals and individual accomplishments, I feel like we have a lot of work to do in replacing a lot of scoring and a lot of leadership," McGreal said. "Most people probably believe that, by losing three of the top 10 players in the conference from last year, we're going to be down this year. But I feel very confident in the returners we have."
Penn State Altoona's group of returners is led by senior guard Jalen Archie-Davis (Norcross, GA/Norcross) and junior center Cameron Gardner-Nicholson (Philadelphia, PA/Boys' Latin Charter). Archie-Davis finished fourth in the AMCC last year in assists per game (3.8) while also adding 5.9 points per game. Gardner-Nicholson led the conference in blocks (71) and blocks per game (2.6), and he was fifth in rebounds per game (7.1). He also shot a conference-best 61.5% from the floor and averaged 7.3 points per game.
"Our returners are led by two of our starters, Jalen and Cam. Jalen took over midseason as the starting point guard and did a great job distributing the ball while also playing solid defense. Cam deserved the Defensive Player of the Year award, and he anchored the middle of our offense and defense," stated McGreal. "I look to those two guys to give us quality minutes on the floor this year."
The Lions also bring back a solid group of players who fit into various roles last year, but may be expected to see increased responsibilities this season. That group consists of senior forward Marshall Higley (Sayre, PA/Sayre), senior guard/forward Tyson West (Wheeling, WV/Linsly School), junior guard/forward Austin Krise (Allport, PA/West Branch), junior guard Trey Butterworth (Clarence, PA/Bald Eagle), sophomore forward Richard Dei-Kwarteng (Windsor Hill, MD/Standard of Excellence Academy), and sophomore guards Nate Gillen (Johnstown, PA/Central Cambria) and Danny Browne (Downingtown, PA/Bishop Shanahan). Another returner is senior guard Rogelio Christian-Olan (Orlando, FL/Life Christian Academy), who is back after missing the past two seasons with injuries.
"After Jalen and Cam, I'm confident in the rest of the guys who played reserve roles for us, including our other two seniors, Marshall and Tyson. They will be asked to step up their games and provide big minutes," said McGreal. "Other guys who played big roles last year include Austin, a very versatile player who was one of our better defenders and rebounders and has improved his offense in the offseason. Trey provided a spark in the second half of last season and will be back providing competent minutes at the point guard position. Ro is coming off of back-to-back years of knee surgery, and he will hopefully give us more depth at the guard position from someone who has experience competing in the AMCC. Our three sophomores will be asked to step up, with Nate coming back after providing good minutes last year in a handful of games, and Danny and Richard will look to work their way into the rotation to provide meaningful minutes at the guard and forward positions."
In addition to the Lions' 10 returners, the team also welcomes 12 newcomers, a combination of freshmen and transfers. McGreal points to three transfers who can make an impact right away with their skill and experience of playing at the collegiate level. Junior guard Malcolm Martin (Chicago, IL/Chicago Vocational) comes to Penn State Altoona after two years at Daley College (IL), fellow junior guard Shevelle Bailey (Titusville, FL/Titusville) joins the Lions after two seasons at McCook Community College (FL), and junior forward Clevon Scott (Raeford, NC/Hoke County) arrives after two years at Penn State Beaver.
"We're very excited about the newcomers and what they can bring to the table. Our two junior college transfers, Malcolm and Shevelle, will hopefully provide an immediate impact for us at the wing position, along with commonwealth campus transfer Clevon, who will provide depth at that position," said McGreal.
The program also brings nine first-year players into the fold: guards Jack Kusters (Quakertown, PA/Lansdale Catholic), Robbie Hicks (Rockledge, FL/Rockledge), Nick Clark (Nazareth, PA/Nazareth), Kyle Griffin (West Mifflin, PA/West Mifflin), and Kevin Sanchez (Philadelphia, PA/Harriton), guard/forward Shandon Marshall (Brownsville, PA/Brownsville), and forwards Justin Charlton (Altoona, PA/Bishop Guilfoyle), Y'shua Bragg (Pittsburgh, PA/Carrick), and Michael Bartolacci (Murrysville, PA/Franklin Regional).
"We're very optimistic about the freshmen we've brought in, led by Jack Kusters, the 10th-leading scorer in the very competitive Philadelphia Catholic League, scoring 16.9 points per game at Lansdale. Shandon Marshall was the fourth-leading scorer in the WPIAL last season, averaging around 24.5 points per game. One of Pittsburgh city's best high school big men, Y'shua Bragg, will give us huge minutes in the paint," McGreal explained. "Robbie Hicks is a sharp shooter from Rockledge with numerous three-point records at his alma mater. Local product Justin Charlton is a very versatile forward who can shoot from deep. Another WPIAL standout, Michael Bartolacci, was a huge part of his team's success at Franklin Regional last year. We also bring in the all-around solid guard Nick Clark from Nazareth."
Penn State Altoona men's basketball opens its 2018-19 season on the road, traveling to non-conference opponent Saint Vincent College on Tuesday, November 13 for a 7:30 p.m. game. After that, the Lions hit the road to play another non-conference foe, Frostburg State University, on Saturday, November 17 at 8:00 p.m.
The team's first home game is Tuesday, November 20 at 6:00 p.m. against Bethany College. After that, the Lions journey to LaGrange College in Georgia to compete in the LaGrange Shootout on Saturday, November 24 and Sunday, November 25, when they will face Birmingham-Southern College and Berry College. Then, Penn State Altoona heads into AMCC play with a home game against nearby conference rival Mount Aloysius College on Wednesday, November 28 at 8:00 p.m.
"One thing we have to understand is that it will take time to meld the talents of the returners with the infusion of youth to hopefully have a very competitive season within our conference. We have a very tough non-conference schedule to start off again this year," said McGreal. "We have games against St. Vincent, Frostburg, and Bethany to start off before we head down to a very competitive tournament against tough south region opponents Birmingham-Southern and Berry, and then we kick off our conference run. We will also face a couple more Presidents' Athletic Conference opponents, Chatham University and Grove City College, to round out our non-conference schedule. I feel very confident that, once we learn how to play together and within our system, we will be fun to watch and, more importantly, be very competitive within the AMCC."