HELENA — Carroll’s men’s basketball team is in the middle of its off-season schedule. This point in the summer allows the Saints to have most of their players helping out with camps, as well as getting some intrasquad scrimmages in on the side.
For the last week, Carroll has had all six of its incoming freshmen players in town working out and playing pick-up games with a handful of returning players.
“The nice thing is [the freshmen] come back in August and they all know each other,” Saints head coach Kurt Paulson said. “It’s a little bit less anxiety coming to college, now you know your teammates and have a lay of the land. It’s very beneficial for those incomers. Then also the returning guys meet their new teammates.”
Thursday featured roughly an hour-long scrimmage with guys like Garrett Long, Andrew Cook and James Lang taking center stage. Rising junior Ifeanyi Okeke flushed three thunderous dunks during the informal, pick-up style games.
Other returners like Murat Guzelocak, Gui Pedra, Brendan Temple and Malachi Afework ran alongside their new teammates, getting, for really the first time, extended time to build chemistry with the freshmen.
“They are playing tough,” Guzelocak said. “For freshmen especially, they don’t step down. When you talk trash to them to play hard against them, they just keep playing harder. It’s making it fun, too. At Carroll, if you’re not mentally tough, I don’t think you’ll get playing time. They are tough kids.”
Carroll’s class currently features six players from states like Washington, Oregon and California and Montana. That number, along with the Saints’ lack of seniors on the 2020-21 team, means Paulson plans to carry around 17 players for the upcoming season. Paulson said that will give his team plenty of depth and hopes to elevate everyone’s play by bringing in solid players who will push those returning.
Long, someone who could potentially fill the two-guard role left by Dennis Flowers III when he transferred, did not seem phased by the collegiate talent he went up against on Thursday despite describing it as “a lot more physical” than high school. Coming off ball screens, Long got to the rim on several occasions and finished with a variety of moves.
He has an All-American to learn from in Shamrock Campbell, and it is times like these during the summer when much learning and growing can take place.
“Just soak up as much knowledge as I can of what it’s going to be like from the veterans like Shamrock, Jonny and Ifeanyi,” Long said of his goal this summer. “Just see what it’s going to be like, because not everything is going to go my way during the season. Playing hard and being competitive and physical are the things I can control.”
Cook, who ended up as California’s 32nd-leading scorer at the high school level with 21.3 points per game during his senior season, hit a number of mid-range shots and also stepped out to knock down a 3-pointer or two.
His 6-foot-4 frame allows him to get to the rim and finish, while also being able to dunk the basketball on a fast break like he did Thursday.
“Andrew, he can shoot off the dribble so well,” Guzelocak said. “It’s going to create more space for other people in the game. Other teams’ centers need to guard him high and I will be open [in the paint]. I think this year is going to be awesome.”
Carroll is coming off a 20-8 season and a run into the quarterfinals of the NAIA National Tournament, the program’s third bid to the national stage in Paulson’s three years at the helm. The Saints reached those heights by playing stout defense and being one of the more competitive teams in the country.
Thursday’s open gym confirmed that competitive drive is still present within Carroll’s roster as some good-natured chippiness bubbled to the surface.
“That’s [like] most practices,” Paulson said. “Guys want to win. You gotta have that if you’re gonna be any good. But you also have to control your emotions a little bit. These guys are competitive and that’s why we like them.”
Carroll plans to continue having these scrimmage-like games for another week or so before classes start back in August.