Men's Basketball Preview: Lions have prescription for success

Rhett Soliday came to Vanguard University to build a men's basketball program. But in his three previous seasons, particularly the last two, he has instead been saddled with nearly enough afflicted players to support a burgeoning medical practice.

Despite the string of physical maladies, ranging from shoulders, to backs to knees to ankles, the Lions managed to post their first winning record (17-12) in five seasons in 2012-13. And if Soliday and his staff can limit the length of daily progress reports from the training room, this year's squad may continue the upward trend.

"I'm thinking if we can get everybody healthy in the preseason, there is no one on our schedule that we can't, on any given night, compete with and beat," Soliday said. "In the past, I'd say we could compete with anybody, but I don't know if I could really say we were good enough to finally get over that hump and beat anybody."

The return of the top two scorers from last season is a good place to start when it comes to optimism, as senior guard Preston Wynne (18.1 points per game) and junior point guard Chris Gorman (15.4 per contest) are back to anchor a backcourt Soliday proudly calls as good as any his team will face.

"In terms of talent, character and competitiveness, [Wynne and Gorman] are as good as you can find," Soliday said. "I think the thing we were really missing last year was length and athleticism at the rim. We've just gotten crushed on the boards these last couple years, and the reality is that if you can't protect the paint and rebound, you are going to lose games decided in the last five minutes."

Soliday believes he may have filled the front-court void with a trio of transfers. TJ Burke, a 6-9 sophomore from UC Riverside, Zach Allmon, a 6-8 redshirt freshman from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and Keith Mason, a 6-8 junior from Los Angeles Harbor Community College are all long and talented, though, predictably, two are battling ailments that could limit their contributions.

Mason, who, Soliday considers the most ready to make a sizable impact in the paint, started and had 11 points and four rebounds in just 11 minutes of Monday's season-opening 101-59 home blowout of Cal Tech.

"He can face up against guys and also score with his back to the basket," Soliday said of Mason, who has had knee issues in the recent past.

Allmon produced 11 points and five rebounds in 14 minutes as a starter on Monday, while Burke is still recovering from a torn ACL last season that figures to sideline him till late November or early December, Soliday said.

"We recruited Burke and Allmon out of high school, so when they decided to leave their [Division I] schools, they contacted us," Soliday said. "It's unusual to get [bounce-back] big men with as much eligibility as they both have."

Wynne, who led the Lions in scoring in 17 games last season, when he started in 27 games, is a player of the year candidate in the Golden State Athletic Conference, Soliday said.

"His catch-and-shoot trigger from just about anywhere past half court makes him a really unique player," Soliday said of Wynne. "I'm not going to say he is the most talented scorer in our conference, but I definitely think he is the most unique."

Gorman runs the show with flash and strong leadership and his ability to score makes him a valuable commodity.

Junior guard DeAngelo Jones, who redshirted last season after transferring form Spokane Community College, could add strong production at the guard position. He scored 18 in 19 minutes as a starter on opening night.

Myles Smith, a backup point guard last season as a freshman, is dealing with a back issue the severity of which has yet to be determined.

The frontcourt figures to also be bolstered by the presence of returners Sele Hann, Swing Chuang, Jordan Diandy and Tino Zaragosa.

Hann is coming off shoulder surgery, while Chuang tore a knee ligament last season and Diandy is still hampered by a broke leg suffered two years ago.

Senior guard Noel Larkins could also add depth.

"I really like the makeup and combination of players we have this year," Soliday said. "I like how they fit together. We've been a little up and down with injuries in the preseason, but if we are all healthy, I think we have a real chance. Our talent level overall, from top to bottom, has improved and our character level has improved. But the reality is, when we get to those 14 [conference] games, we have to have the right mix and mesh, and finish. It's going to come down to the last five minutes of each game, to hit the shots and get the stops. There's no question we're good enough to do well in the conference, but so is everyone else. We just have to be that team that learns how to finish."

Vanguard competes Friday and Saturday in the Las Vegas Invitational and returns home to meet UC Merced on Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m.

The Lions open conference play at San Diego Christian on Jan. 14.

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