Now entering its first season of the post-Danny Kaspar era, the Texas State men's basketball team is happy to put a lengthy scandal and a COVID-struck off-season behind it and get back to what it loves: Playing basketball.
Months after the team's season ended prematurely due to COVID-19, Kaspar was accused by Jaylen Shead, a former Texas State basketball player, of making racist remarks to players on the team throughout his tenure. Kaspar was placed on leave with pay and later resigned Sept. 22.
The team's season is now set to begin Nov. 25 against Mary Hardin-Baylor, and junior forward Alonzo Sule says despite everything the team faced over the offseason, its ultimate goal to win the Sun Belt Conference Championship remains the same.
“I feel like we’ve had a lot of stuff this offseason, on and off the court, but I feel like it’s made us stronger,” Sule said. “We have some of that leftover fire left from how our season ended last year. We’re going to keep working, and we have our goal that we have to finish.”
The inaugural season for Interim Head Coach Terrence Johnson, or TJ, as the players call him, comes after the Bobcats finished third in the Sun Belt Conference with a 21-11 record, including the best home record (15-3) since the '93-'94 season. After the Bobcats defeated Appalachian State in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference Championship, the remainder of the tournament was canceled.
Senior forward Isiah Small felt like the team was poised for a deep run.
“Every team did not want to play us,” Small said. “We really were going to win it all.”
The offseason only worsened for the Bobcats as the team was embroiled in the Kaspar investigation during a time of racial turmoil across the country. Texas State has not made clear whether or not the investigation is still ongoing.
Several athletes who previously played under Kaspar came out both in support of and against him. Some current Texas State players still have a positive view of their former coach.
"[The allegations] didn't change my opinion [of Kaspar]; I don't know about anyone else, but it didn't change mine..." sophomore guard Caleb Asberry said. "Honestly, we [were] just focused on [next season]. We had no control over that, so we really wasn't too focused on it."
While not defending his actions, Johnson understands that each of his players had a relationship with Kaspar and frequently talks about him with the team. Johnson says his players, regardless of their feelings about Kaspar, just wanted a decision to be made that was in their best interests so they could move on.
As Johnson transitions into his new role, he says it has been tough at times but that the players have made it easier. Throughout the process, the team has taught him "resiliency."
"To be an 18, 22, 23 year old in today's America is extremely challenging," Johnson said. "These times are very uncertain; we don't know what's going on. From anything dealing with COVID to anything dealing with social justice... I'll say this: Our guys are being evaluated in a perfect scenario... it's challenging, but they're teaching me how to be even more resilient."
While Johnson plans to leave his own mark on the program, he gives credit to Kaspar for setting the foundation for Texas State's success in recent years.
"This is NASCAR; [Kaspar] built a great car," Johnson said. "We're just trying to change the tires, so we can stay on the path. That's what I'm doing, but at the same time I gotta do it my way, and my way is just a tad bit different."
Johnson's coaching philosophy starts off the court. His focus is on mental health, emotional health and physical health.
When it comes to team culture, Johnson says he wants his players to approach everyday life the same way they do the basketball court—with a concern for their fellow humans, toughness, teamwork and effort.
On the court, Johnson still wants the team to play inside-out offensively, driving to the rim and feeding the post but with more focus on spacing. With the recent graduation of Nijal Pearson, Texas State's all-time leading scorer, Johnson says he is aware the offense will be harder to come by and believes added space will allow for even distribution.
On the defensive end, Asberry says the Bobcats will play similar to the way they did last season.
"We are not switching anything; we're sticking to our old principles," Asberry said. "We're pretty much the same team [defensively] from last year. We're gonna get after the ball, be in the lanes... us is us; that's how we are."
With the possibility of games being canceled and players likely missing games due to COVID-19 protocols, junior guard Mason Harrell and the rest of the team are working to remain flexible.
“I wouldn’t say we’re worried about it; we’re taking it day by day," Harrell said. "Going into [the season], things might get shifted around and get canceled here and there, but we still have to be prepared.”
Johnson will be looking for players to step into leadership roles this season.
"I think it starts with the point guard Mason Harrell," Johnson said. "He leads by example, he's the hardest-working kid in the program, and he's well respected... We think Shelby Adams (senior guard) has the great makings of a leader, and I think that our guys respect his work ethic. He has the right amount of confrontation... Bringing up the rear is Alonzo Sule; I think that he has a chance to be by far the most impactful player that we've had at that position since Emani Gant."
Young players will be asked to make an immediate impact, and Small says he is excited to see freshman forward Nate Martin.
“He’s going to be that dude," Small said. "He’s going to win us a lot of games. That’s a special freshman right there.”
Texas State was picked fifth out of six teams in the West Divison in the Preseason Coach's Poll and received the third-fewest votes in the entire Sun Belt. Additionally, no players were selected to a Preseason All-Conference team.
"We've been picked lower than that since I've been here," Johnson said. "Those people have a job to do, and it's our job to prove them wrong. It's really that simple; I'm fine with that. I would rather be picked there than five spots higher."
After the season opener, the team will go on a two-game road trip, first to Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Nov. 28, followed by Mississippi State on Nov. 30.
After playing Incarnate Word on Dec. 5, the Bobcats will face No. 19 University of Texas on Dec. 9.
Texas State will begin conference play Jan. 1-2 against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
The team will then face the 2019-20 regular-season conference champion University of Arkansas at Little Rock four times in three weeks starting Jan. 16, with its final contest against the Trojans coming Feb. 6.
The Bobcats' regular-season concludes Feb. 27 with a two-game home stint against the University of Louisiana at Monroe Warhawks.
The Sun Belt Conference Championship tournament will take place March 5-8.