Finding the right pieces


Despite an 18-36 record thus far, second year head coach Jim Fox will be center piece in the rise of App State basketball.

Lee Sanderlin

Instilling a winning culture doesn’t happen overnight, not at a school whose Division I basketball team has been stuck in mediocrity for the better part of 43 years. Not for a program who has only been to the big dance twice, with the last time coming at the dawn of the new millennium. Not for a team that hasn’t won a conference title since 2010 and hasn’t won more than 16 games this decade. No, it takes time to to learn how to win. It takes losing to learn what it’s like to taste victory.

Head coach Jim Fox’s team is learning that right now, stuck in the midst of a 6-19 season and still looking for their first win in the month of February. This is the same team that had the lofty goal of competing for the Sun Belt title in October before the season started.

Although their record is below where they wanted it to be, and the chances of advancing to the Sun Belt tournament are slimming by the day, all is not lost this season.

There have been bright spots for this six-win team, many more than other six-win teams might have. Senior guard and standout Frank Eaves, one of those bright spots, has provided the leadership for this team, doing everything he can to help the team stay in games while steadily building up his own stock, with a professional career potentially in his future. Eaves is one of the most prolific scorers in college basketball and it’s a shame his final season will go down as one of the more disappointing ones in Appalachian State history.

Unfortunately for Eaves, he won’t be around the next few years to experience what is potentially shaping up to be one of the best stretches of basketball Appalachian State has experienced since Bobby Cremins was here in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

The Mountaineers have young talent, with four freshmen and two sophomores on their roster this season, and it is reasonable to expect significant improvement from all six players going into next season.

Of the four freshmen, shooting guard and small forward Ronshad Shabazz looks to be the biggest piece of the puzzle when it comes to the future. Shabazz, not highly recruited out of high school, came to Appalachian State with a lot to prove.

After averaging only 9.9 points and 3.2 rebounds a game during his senior year of high school at Huntington Prep, Shabazz is averaging 11.7 points and 3.7 rebounds a game against Division I competition.

What’s most impressive about his game is how well-rounded of a scorer he is already. Most freshmen at mid-major schools come in unable to do half of the things that Shabazz is capable of doing. He has nearly unlimited shooting range, can create his own shot off the bounce and is able to drive the lane and finish at the rim. This description sounds a lot like Frank Eaves now, which is one of the biggest reasons the future is so bright for Mountaineer basketball. Assuming he continues to improve throughout his time here, he will be a matchup nightmare for any team in the nation, let alone the Sun Belt.

Shabazz’s big man counterpart Tyrell Johnson is poised to be the perfect counterpart to a ball-dominant guard. Johnson doesn’t need the ball to thrive, as he excels as a lengthy, ultra-athletic big.

He is adept at crashing the offensive glass, grabbing 8.5 percent of all offensive rebound opportunities when he’s on the floor, which is impressive considering how undersized he is compared to the competition. Johnson stands an impressive 6 feet 8 inches tall but only weighs in at 200 pounds, making him incredibly light for a Division I center. By comparison, Jacob Lawson, also an uber athletic center, is 6 feet 8 inches tall and 237 pounds. But it is incredibly rare for a freshman to come in at the right weight, especially freshmen who aren’t on the national radar. If all goes to plan, Johnson will bulk up over the next few years, making him one of the premier bigs in the Sun Belt.

Also a member of the current freshman class, Bennett Holley is the stretch-forward that coaches dream about at night. Holley is shooting 46.9 percent from 3-point land so far in his rookie campaign, a ridiculously good number that gets even better when you remember that he’s a 6-foot-8 power forward. With a sweet stroke like that, pairing him next to Johnson would create nightmares for opposing teams trying to figure out how to guard such versatile big men.

In the end, the brightest beacon of hope for Appalachian State basketball is head coach Jim Fox and his staff. It can’t be exaggerated as to how key Fox is in turning around the program. Currently in his second year, play under Fox has improved despite the team’s poor record. His team plays a lot of close games, and has suffered a lot of heartache. So far this season the team has lost six games by just six points or less, four of which were one-point losses. Those are games that teams with more experience win, games this team will start to win towards the end of this year and next season, especially under Fox.

Fox knows what it takes to bring a program into relevancy, having experienced it during his time as an assistant under coach Bob McKillop at Davidson College. While they had a special player by the name of Stephen Curry, there is more to winning than the talents of one individual.

Luckily for Fox, he has a special player in Ronshad Shabazz who can help key this program’s ascension in the college ranks in a similar way to what Davidson experienced. While Shabazz is by no means a Curry-type talent, he does have the right tools and the talent around him to build the winning culture under Fox that Appalachian State needs. It probably won’t happen this year, but for the first time the pieces are in place for long term success at a program that has never tasted it.

Story by: Lee Sanderlin, Associate Sports Editor