(THE ATHLETIC)

The Evansville Purple Aces waved goodbye to head coach Todd Lickliter after two seasons at the helm, the most recent of which ranked as the worst in program history over the past 25 years, per KenPom. Lickliter had taken over for Walter McCarty after the latter was let go following his own two-year stint. In those four seasons, the Purple Aces finished dead last in the Missouri Valley three times and amassed a conference record of 14-58 while achieving an overall mark of 35-84. This program needs saving, and the powers that be hope new head coach David Ragland is that savior. Ragland becomes Evansville’s third coach in five seasons and brings years of experience on the bench of fellow Valley schools Indiana State and Valparaiso, as well as Utah State and Butler, among others. Taking over a program that’s fallen on hard times can be a difficult endeavor, but Ragland is approaching his new situation with a calm, cool and collected attitude. “Challenges are what you allow them to be. My perspective is there are going to be challenges everywhere, but it’s how you respond that matters,” said Ragland. “For me, that’s responding to adversity in a mature way, so the young people do as they see and not told. If I’m mature, they will be too. The biggest challenge is mental.” Ragland will look to start to turn the tides of the Evansville program with the help of a young and inexperienced roster.

ROAD TO SUCCESS

Ragland’s mindset and approach to the game seems tailor-made for the Valley: “We want to defend and rebound. Those are non-negotiables,” he mandated. “If you can’t do either, you can’t get on the floor.” Defense, rebounding, and physicality have been hallmarks of the Valley for a long time. But Ragland also hopes to use his team’s defense to get out and run in the open floor. The Purple Aces will focus on getting tips, deflections and steals that turn into easy transition points the other way. “We want [the opposing team] to be different that night when they play against the Aces,” he explained. “If we can take away strengths and be active [on defense], we’ll get what we want on offense.” In the halfcourt, Ragland’s team will focus on attacking the rim and taking care of the ball. He wants a group of guys that are unselfish and play for the team versus the individual. With so many new faces taking on large roles, it’s likely he’ll find success getting buy-in to his philosophy. There isn’t a bonafide, proven alpha demanding 30 percent of the possessions. Blaise Beauchamp will be the closest thing to a go-to starter for the Aces. He started ten games last season (including the final nine) and shined during those contests. As a starter, Beauchamp averaged 12.4 points per game and had a 29-point outburst against Indiana State on Feb. 10. Beauchamp will be joined in the backcourt by walk-on Gage Bobe, a 6-0 senior that, despite his non-scholarship status, Ragland expects to play a key role. Bobe is the only player on the roster who is entering his fourth season with the Evansville program. Up front, Evansville returns two players with starting experience. Preston Phillips and Antoine Smith Jr. will combine to form a significant chunk of the frontcourt rotation. Smith is a long, stretch big who can run the floor and pull slower defenders to the perimeter. He had a six-game stretch last year where he tallied 11.5 points per contest while making 16 triples at 55.2 percent. Phillips also has excel[1]lent length, but he is more of a garbage man-type who is active on the glass and offers more rim protection defensively. Ragland added depth to his rotation by bringing in four transfers this offseason. UNLV transfer Marvin Coleman II will hope to be fully ready after dealing with injuries and illness last season. Coleman started 20 games for the Runnin’ Rebels back in 2019-20 and averaged 6.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per contest. Alabama State transfer Kenny Strawbridge Jr. should fight for prime minutes on the wing. He was a two-year starter for ASU and was an effective two-way player in the SWAC. Bolstering Evansville’s deep frontcourt rotation are Akron transfer Sekou Kalle and Indian Hills junior college transfer Yacine Toumi. Ragland says it will be difficult to keep Kalle off the floor. He’s Evansville’s biggest player, and the program has suffered from a lack of size in recent years as Lickliter gravitated more towards skilled forwards. Toumi comes from a JUCO powerhouse and will add size and athleticism.

POTENTIAL POTHOLES

The loss of four full-time starters hurts for a team with a ton of new pieces and limited in-game experience. At times, guards Shamar Givance and Jawaun Newton were Evansville’s only source of offense, so it begs the question: how will this team score consistently? The Aces lack proven creators and shooting. While their front[1]court is long and possesses considerable upside, their back[1]court leaves much to be desired on paper. Evansville was already the Valley’s worst offensive team in 2021-22 and a bottom 20 team nationally. Second shots may not be the answer, either. Evansville was the worst offensive rebounding team in the country last season, some of which was by design as Lickliter preferred to get back in transition over crashing the glass. But given the number of outside shots the Aces took in 2021-22 (13th highest rate in the nation), it should have resulted in more second chances. Ragland’s addition of size and a more aggressive mindset should help this deficiency, but the questions of shooting and scoring linger. Further, it’s a tough year to be a team in transition in the Valley. Most squads in the league are established with a ton of pieces returning. Besides Evansville, only two other schools underwent coaching changes, and few teams lost more production than these Aces.

KEY DEPARTURES

SHAMAR GIVANCE (13.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.9 apg)

JAWAUN NEWTON (12.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.2 spg)

NOAH FREDERKING (7.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.1 spg)

EVAN KUHLMAN (7.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.7 apg)

BLAKE SISLEY (6.0 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 0.3 apg)

KEY NEWCOMERS

MARVIN COLEMAN (transfer, UNLV)

KENNY STRAWBRIDGE (transfer, Alabama State)

SEKOU KALLE (transfer, Akron)

YACINE TOUMI (Indian Hills CC)

CHRIS MONCRIEF (freshman, The Kiski School)

THE X-FACTOR

Despite being the leading returning scorer, Beauchamp is also Evansville’s X-factor this season. Ragland has great expectations for the slender 6-3 guard in his second year. “His numbers and shooting percentage will be better,” said Ragland. “Shot selection is the key with him. His shot selection was not the best last year because when he had the ball it was often late in the shot clock. His efficiency will improve.” Ragland also thinks any of his freshmen can quickly earn minutes. Zaveion Chism-Okoh, a 6-3 guard who spent a season at Link Year Prep, has been “way more athletic than expected,” according to Ragland. He could have an impact as an on-ball defender and slasher. Gabe Spinelli is reportedly physically ahead of most true freshmen and also brings a solid dose of athleticism. Logan McIntire, a 6-4 local product out of Indiana, is a hard worker and has already had his moments in practice. Chris Moncrief is a long, physical wing who has a ton of versatility and a college-ready frame. Ragland also added Matus Malovec, a 6-6 Slovakian with a strong feel for the game.

THE OUTLOOK

Ragland has his work cut out for him in year one as the Aces’ head honcho. But the young coach is optimistic about the program’s future and might be just a little bit more invested than other candidates given that he grew up in Evansville. Step one in his burgeoning coaching journey: establish a winning culture. “The biggest thing for everyone to understand, when you take over a program, everyone talks about culture, and that’s the work you put in every day, the energy you work with every day,” explained Ragland. “We’re slowly making progress toward that. A lot of people will see a different look for the Aces, because of our approach, our attitude, and willingness to be coached. We have a good group of talent but also unbelievable people.”