The personnel and the strategy might differ for Norfolk State coach Robert Jones, but the expectation never will. There’s only one outcome to the season that will do.
“It’s not going to change,” Jones said as he approached the start of his third year as head coach at the school. “I have to have a little bit more patience, I think, but it’s still the same thing: win a championship.”
The Spartans, who return just five players from a team that went 20-14 overall and 12-4 in the MEAC last season, have work to do to accomplish that.
Mainly, they have to figure out what kind of team they’re going to be.
After the departure of 6-foot-9 star forward RaShid Gaston to Xavier in the spring, Jones was left with a significant size problem. Weighing his options without time to replace Gaston’s 15.5 points and team-leading 9.6 rebounds per game, Jones decided to go with a lineup that could include as many as four guards at once, with 6-6 sophomore Jordan Butler the primary presencein the paint.
Jones also expects to pair Butler with 6-8 freshman Alex Long at time to bolster the Spartans inside, which they’ll likely need when they open the season Saturday at South Carolina.
Jones’ roster includes nine new names, but he says that doesn’t make this a rebuilding year.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces, but that’s not going to hold us back,” said sophomore guard Devonte Banner. “Like coach tells us, he wants us to win a championship this year, not next year. So the new faces shouldn’t hold us back from getting our goal and winning a championship.”
The Spartans return shooting guards Jeff Short and D’Shon Taylor, who combined for 32.1 points per game last season to give the team an inside-outside balance.
Short, who scored a team-high 19.1 points per game last season as a junior, was named the MEAC Preseason Player of the Year. He said the Spartans aren’t where they need to be yet.
“We’re all striving to get the MEAC ’ship,” said the 6-4 Short, one of three team captains along with Taylor and Butler. “I still think we need a little more work.”
Jones expects his team to improve upon last season’s 34.6 3-point shooting percentage . Short, Taylor, point guard Zaynah Robinson and newcomers Charles Oliver and Alex Long are all threats from outside.
Jones is stressing the importance of getting down the court and scoring quickly in transition or, when that’s not an option, executing in the half-court.
The 3-pointers, he said, will come naturally.
“I think we’ll shoot more because we’ve got guys who can shoot more this year,” Jones said. “We’ve got a legitimate six, seven guys who can make 3s this year.”
Jones, an assistant at NSU for six years before he was promoted, owns a 39-29 overall record and a 23-9 mark in the MEAC.
Barring a phenomenal regular season worthy of an at-large bid, a MEAC team must win the league tournament to reach the NCAA tournament, as NSU last did in 2012.
The Spartans bowed out of the MEAC tournament in the semifinals last season and settled for a spot in the CollegeInsider.com tournament, where they fell 81-75 at Eastern Kentucky in the first round.
Taylor, who said his personal goal is a double-double every game, said he’d like to see the team improve on defense before this weekend. But looking around at his many new teammates, the 6-5 senior from Nassau, Bahamas, likes what he sees.
Taylor didn’t hesitate when asked whether he thought the Spartans could contend for the MEAC crown.
“I don’t think you’re going to ever hear me say no, no matter what team I’m ever playing for,” he said. “So I’ll definitely say we can.”