Men's Basketball Preview: Lions seek to improve

After halting a string of three straight losing seasons with a 15-15 campaign, it is perhaps fitting that the last name of the most heralded addition to the Vanguard University men's basketball roster is synonymous with third-year coach Rhett Soliday's ultimate goal.

"Our most talented overall player is Preston Wynne," said Soliday, who lost six seniors and returns only 24.2% of his scoring from last season, in which the Lions broke even overall, but finished 7-11 in the Golden State Athletic Conference.

Wynne, a 6-foot-1 junior transfer from Spokane Community College, was a two-time conference MVP for the Sasquatch, and also earned conference defensive player of the year laurels as a sophomore guard. At Spokane, Wynne, now 25, set school scoring records for a career (1,228), season (702) and game (44), and his 223 three-point field goals are also tops in school annals.

Wynne averaged 23.3 points, five rebounds, 2.6 steals and almost two assists per game last season, and would have been at an NCAA Division I school had he not lost his NCAA eligibility, Soliday said.

"[Wynne] is a really, really good shooter with deep range and he is really athletic," said Soliday, for whom senior Taylor Kelly (10.8 points per game and a team-best 61 three-pointers last season) is the lone returning starter.

"[Wynne] has about a 40-inch vertical [leap], so he can run off screens and catch and elevate and stick it from deep. And though he's a little guy, he can put it through his legs and dunk it, too. He also really defends, with long arms and big hands, and he is strong. He's probably the most talented player we've had here since Horace Wormely [the GSAC Player of the Year] in 2006."

Soliday, who played and coached at 2012 NAIA champion Concordia, also noted that 2006 was the last time Vanguard competed in the NAIA Tournament. He said such an accomplishment is within reach this season.

"With the league changing [Azusa Pacific, Point Loma Nazarene and Fresno Pacific are now NCAA Division II programs, and Arizona Christian enters to make it an eight-school conference] it opens the door for someone to make a move," said Soliday, whose team was picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches' poll. "If you finish in the top three in this conference, you are going to have a chance to go to the national tournament. It would be pretty cool to work toward getting that done, but there is a lot of work to do."

Helping with that workload will be the intangible-rich Kelly, a 6-3 guard who began his collegiate career at Fresno State.

"He's really a knock-down shooter and he is a great leader," Soliday said of Kelly. "He does all the little things and he really sets the tone for us every day with his attitude and effort. He's a big part of what we're doing, in every area."

Ennis Whatley Jr., a 6-5 senior who Soliday says plays like Charles Barkley, anchors the Lions' front line. The son of his namesake, who played for seven teams and amassed 2,150 points and 1,754 assists in a 10-season NBA career (1983 to 1997), Whatley averaged 4.8 points and 2.9 rebounds in a junior season limited to 17 games, including two starts, due to a broken foot.

Kelly and Whatley are the program's lone seniors this season.

Jordan Diandy, a 6-6 sophomore from Senegal who played in 11 games and made five starts last season before breaking his leg, is expected to contribute greatly, Soliday said. Diandy averaged 3.5 points and 2.3 rebounds as a freshman.

Swing Chuang, a 6-5 junior transfer from Fullerton College, is another frontcourt contributor, Soliday said. Chuang redshirted last season.

Soliday said Chris Gorman, a 5-11 sophomore point guard whose 21 points per game at Palomar Community College last season ranked sixth in the state, third among freshmen, will begin the first of his three seasons running the show when the Lions tip off their season Thursday against visiting Menlo College at 7:30 p.m.

"[Gorman] is a really capable ballhandler, scorer and defender who is really tough and competes," Soliday said.

Soliday said Myles Smith, a 5-8 freshman guard who helped Mayfair High win the CIF Southern Section 2-A Division title last season, provides depth at the point.

Sean McCarthy, a 6-3 freshman who earned all-state high school honors in Idaho, is another potential contributor, helping fill a backcourt void left by the departure of All-GSAC performer Chris Raybon and Chris Cupets, who combined to average nearly 30.5 points and sink 108 three-pointers in 2011-12.

Dakotah Richter, a 6-8, 255-pound sophomore who played formerly at Azusa Pacific, should add minutes up front, as will sophomore Selle Hann, whose freshman season (64 points in 28 games) was hampered by a knee injury.

Zachary Kirschbaum, a 6-9 sophomore who scored 33 points in 20 games last year, and junior guard DeAngelo Jones, who tore his ACL early last season while playing with Wynne at Spokane, will redshirt, Soliday said.

Vanguard, which plays an exhibition game at UC Irvine on Nov. 3, opens the GSAC season Jan. 8 at home against San Diego Christian.

"I feel best about the fact that we've got the right mix of character and talent in the program, and that has been a work in progress," Soliday said. "We have a bunch of guys who are here for the right reasons and they are really going to compete for each other."

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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