There's not a hint of hyperbole in Todd Bozeman's voice when he calls the 2011-12 season "the toughest year I've ever had as a coach."
In his sixth year at Morgan State, Bozeman's Bears stumbled through a 9-19 season, and the veteran coach was placed on paid administrative leave after he was accused of hitting senior guard Larry Bastfield during a game at South Carolina State. A week later, after university officials found that "results of the investigation [into the incident] were inconclusive," Bozeman was reinstated.
Needless to say Bozeman is looking forward to putting last season behind him and starting fresh with a new group of Bears. Morgan lost Bastfield (Towson Catholic), center Kevin Thompson (Walbrook), wing Aric Brooks (St. Frances) and forward Ameer Ali to graduation, but returns senior forward DeWayne Jackson, sophomore guard Blake Bozeman, junior center Ian Chiles and sophomore forward Shaquille Duncan, among others.
Bozeman has also added five newcomers to his roster: Donte Pretlow, a 6-foot, 185-pound point guard from Dunbar; Cedric Blossom, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound forward from Montrose Christian; Daryl Traynham, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound point guard from Prince George's County who played his freshman year at UMass and his sophomore season at Palm Beach State in Florida; Rasean Simpson, a 6-foot-5, 180-pound wing from San Diego; and Tauron Bailey, a 6-foot-7, 215-pound JUCO transfer from the Bronx. Redshirt junior Anthony Hubbard, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound guard, will also make his much-anticipated Morgan debut after sitting out last season as a transfer from Iowa via Frederick Community College.
Bozeman spoke to The Sun this week about Morgan's newcomers, last season's suspension, an offseason team trip to the Bahamas and much more.
Let's start with the newcomers. Donte Pretlow is a guy who won a ton of games at Dunbar. What do you like about him?
The thing I like about Donte is, No. 1, it's important to get players that are from winning programs – high school programs where guys have been well coached. A lot of times at winning programs, you understand the sacrifices you have to make to be successful. Like you said, he won a ton of games. He won three state titles in a row. He knows what that's about. He's a really, really tough kid. He really knows how to play. When we went to the Bahamas, he did very well there. It was good for him to be on the floor, playing and fitting in with the other guys. He did well.
Cedric Blossom is another local guy who won a lot of games in high school with Montrose Christian. What does he bring to the table?
Well again, the same thing applies in terms of it was important for me to go out and get some guys that not only can play, but also come from winning programs. They understand the sacrifices and discipline you have to have in order to be a winner. Sometimes you get guys that maybe come from programs like that but get to college and they don't win, and then they develop bad habits. It's important to get guys from programs like that and integrate them into our system. That way you can maintain some consistency. Ced is very talented. I think he's very fundamentally sound. He's only going to continue to improve in our program. He gives us a guy that is flexible and can play different positions. A lot of times you see teams – take Missouri for example – that play small. They had Kimmie English play the 4. That caused a matchup problem for a lot of teams. Ced gives us that ability as long as he continues to develop. I think he gives us the flexibility to do that. He did well in the Bahamas as well.
Daryl Traynham is a PG County guy who has played DI before and starred at the JUCO level. Do you see him running the point right away?
I think since Itchy [Bolden], we haven't had that floor general to kind of run the team and run the program. I've known Daryl since he was 8 years old. He's definitely a general. He's great in transition. The guys really enjoy playing with him. He really pushes the ball, and he's a pest on defense. He's what the doctor ordered. We looked to him to be a general out on the floor. He shoots the ball better than people think. He'll be a great addition. He didn't go to the Bahamas with us. Long story in terms of him being in summer school and making sure all the proper things are done. But he'll be a great addition.
Then you've got two more out-of-state additions to the roster. Talk about them.
Tauron Bailey is an undersized wing, 6-6, from Monroe College in the Bronx. Freshman year they played in the [NJCAA] semifinals out in Hutchinson, Kan., for the national junior college championship. He's a tough, tough low-post player. He's really got a nose for the glass and he rebounds. He's just another tough, hard-nosed player.
Rasean Simpson from San Diego. He's 6-6, he's a wing player, really athletic, can shoot the ball. With DeWayne and Hubb playing the wings, he'll be able to help us, but those guys will be the main focus.
You were hoping last year to have Anthony Hubbard, but after his short stay at Iowa, the NCAA made him sit out. What have you seen from him so far?
He's a man. He's a grown man. And he played like it. It was good to see him. That [Bahamas] trip was good for us in that guys that needed to play got more minutes. He was one of those guys, being able to get on the floor with those guys. We'll need him a lot to provide scoring, provide leadership, defense, rebounding. He really, really rebounds the ball well. That's the thing he did a great job of in the Bahamas. He's a tremendous offensive rebounder, and he really pushed the ball in transition. He can play multiple positions; he can play the 1 through 4 and provide the same effectiveness.
We talked last year about how 2011-12 could be your most talented team, but that obviously didn't work out. You also had to face those accusations from South Carolina State and deal with the suspension before being cleared. Overall last year, what went wrong?
Well, I'm just going to say it wasn't a good year. Clearly, that thing in South Carolina was a distraction. Clearly, the way it was handled by both South Carolina State and the administration at Morgan wasn't the right way. So clearly that was the case. It would have been better and fairer for them to come out and admit that they were wrong, that they shouldn't have done that. Jumping to conclusions like that is never the right thing to do. You should always get the information first before you make a decision. That's the lesson learned. Obviously in my experience and the program's experience, I'm not saying that was the cause [of the losing season], but you take away the leader, and a lot of times you never know what will happen. But it happened. It's part of the past, and it's never going to change now. I just want to go from here and keep it moving.
You lost Bastfield, Thompson, Brooks and Ali to graduation and are bringing in a bunch of newcomers. What are some of the main differences between this team and last year's squad?
Well, I think that we'll be faster and quicker. You can always see that. I think we have good chemistry. All those things are important. This group is together. It was a good bonding experience there. We went snorkeling in the Bahamas. Everybody got in the water – guys who can't even swim. It was a great time. It's a different group. I'm excited and encouraged by that. Clearly, last year was a tough year for me – the toughest year I've ever had as a coach. I think this team is definitely different. You'll see some different things.
How many games did you play in the Bahamas, and what kind of teams did you play?
We played three games against different teams that play in the Bahamian league there. They were men we played against, and anytime you play against men, it's always a different factor there. But they were talented teams. I don't think the competition was … it wasn't great. So for us to put a team together and just have 10 days of practice, that was good for us, to be able to get on the floor. We won the games by a substantial amount, but that wasn't important to me. It was important for us to be able to play, tinker with the offensive systems a little bit, run the offense and get in the flow a little differently. We were able to get tape on that and be able to have guys execute. You really don't get that a lot. In practice, guys know what you're doing. Playing [actual games] and getting in the flow, all that is kind of important.
Who really stood out to you in the Bahamas?
Well, I think Justin Black did well. And again, he was another guy who had a broken ankle last year. I thought Justin, at the time, was playing really hard and really was putting himself in position to be a really solid contributor last year. You factor [his injury] in as well, though you didn't hear me talk about it. I didn't want to make excuses. But he did well there.
Thair Heath, he played last year but he was injured a lot. He came to us and he wasn't 100 percent. He got his knee really strong now. He was a big surprise over there in the Bahamas. He plays really hard. But it was good for him to get minutes over there, get up and down the floor. He played two games two days in a row, and he was fine. We worked him and are counting on him a lot this year as well. He plays really hard.
I thought all the guys did well there. I thought Blake [Bozeman] shot the ball well, particularly in the last game. I thought that Shaquille Duncan got up and down the floor really well. They just played well together. It was good. Every game we got up and down the floor. Ian Chiles got himself in good position and scored. It was hard on the bigs because of the foul calls over there, but they persevered through it and I thought it was a good trip. I'm encouraged. Anytime you get your team that early practice, 10 days to practice and develop good chemistry and you can go to a different type of setting, it's always a good thing. I was encouraged by that.
How about DeWayne Jackson? What have you seen from him during the offseason?
DeWayne, he practiced with us but didn't go on the trip. I didn't take him on the trip, but clearly he is going to be an important cog. I'd like to see him get back to being a consistent player. I think that he has the ability, definitely, to affect the game in a lot of different ways. He can guard anybody, really. He's been a huge part of the success in the early part of his career. I think it's important for him to get back to that. Since we've been back in school, just lifting weights and working out, he's been a real solid contributor as far as that goes. I look for him to have a big year. It's his senior season, so we want him to go out with a bang. And that means getting back to winning – and that's all he knew when he first got here. Winning. I think he's in the right frame of mind to do it.
How big of a bounce back are you expecting this year?
I don't know. I don't really do predictions. I know last year [I said it] was the most talented team, but clearly talent is not the only thing that gets it done for you. You have to have chemistry, you have to have commitment. That was probably the biggest thing last year. When you're going through tough times, you have to really be together. If you're not, it can kind of affect you. I definitely think this year's group is one that will get back to the way that we've been playing at Morgan. The Morgan way. The Morgan basketball way. It's a good group. I just want to make sure every day we come out, we're trying to get better that day and take it one at a time. Who knows what will happen. We'll just come out and play hard and let the chips fall where they may.