MANATEE -- There is a new coach and new hope for the State College of Florida men’s basketball team.
Joe Whelton takes over the program following a successful career coaching professional basketball in Europe.
He is not shy about lighting a fire.
“We have a chip on our shoulder because we are not ranked and out to prove ourselves,” Whelton said.
The coach will get his chance quickly. The Manatees open their season on the road Saturday at Daytona State College and will entertain College of Central Florida, ranked sixth in the state, in the home opener Wednesday.
The Manatees are not big, and Whelton would like to see more consistent outside shooting. But he likes his depth and how his kids play defense, and he said he believes some of his players could emerge as standouts.
Whelton got the job a week before school started after the unexpected resignation of Reggie Bellamy. He didn’t get to recruit any of his players, but said he feels good about what he has seen.
“Everything is based on your defense,” Whelton said. “Our offense will be interesting. Coaching pro ball in Europe, we had a 24-second clock, so I am not used to slowing the ball down. I like up-tempo, but not race horse.”
Whelton’s hopes in the post rest on the shoulders of his two 6-foot-8 sophomores in Odi Onyekachukwu from Nigeria and Sarasota High product Eric Halliwell.
Onyekachukwu came to the United States last year for the first time and struggled. He was used to playing outdoors on wooden backboards, and it took time for him to adjust to the speed of the game.
“Last season didn’t go so well. I feel I can do better because I am more familiar with things and I worked hard during the summer,” Onyekachukwu said. “Under this offense, I will have more opportunity to score and not be so restricted. Now everyone is moving, and we have more freedom in our offense.”
Whelton said Onyekachukwu is a diamond in the rough. The 20-year-old has been offered scholarships to quite a few mid-majors, including North Carolina Central, South Carolina State, College of Charleston and Central Michigan.
“Odi is a big, physical presence inside as a shot blocker and rebounder. He is capable of getting 10 to 14 points and eight to 10 rebounds a game,” Whelton said. “Eric has improved the most. I penciled him in as a backup center, but he can score down low, and they play well together. They are kind of a twin towers down low and will play a lot together.”
Whelton can’t hide his enthusiasm for his freshman starting backcourt of 6-2 Brooklyn native Anthony Prescott at shooting guard and Denzel Myers from South Carolina at the point.
In a recent jamboree, the Manatees beat Suncoast Conference favorite Polk Community College, and the two were impressive.
“They are both fearless tough defenders,” Whelton said. “Myers is a lefthander -- 6-2, about 190 pounds -- and is a football player who is very strong and physical. He is a good ball handler, has good vision and good leadership qualities. I think Anthony will be good enough to play Division I. He is athletic, has deep range on his shot and is a good one-on-one player who can generate points.”
Whelton will probably vary his starting lineup depending on the matchups. At small forward, there is a battle between 6-4 freshman Dauntae Johnson, a North Port High standout, and 6-2 sophomore Elias Gutierrez, who played at Sarasota High.
“Dauntae has a Division I body. He is so athletic and very good in the open court,” Whelton said. “Elias has a high basketball IQ. He can shoot the three and does all the small things that can make a team better.”
Regardless of who starts, there will be a battle going on for playing time. Whelton likes what he has seen from 5-9 freshman backup point guard Stone Hollaway from Booker, 5-10 freshman Javaris Jackson from Bayshore, 5-10 sophomore Reggie Baity from Palmetto and 5-11 sophomore Bobby Thomas from Fort Myers Bishop Verot. Their playing time is up for grabs.
“They’ve stuck together. It’s a good group and highly competitive, which makes everyone better,” Whelton said. “In our jamboree, the two guards (Myers and Prescott) and our two big men, Odi and Eric, stood out the most.”
The Manatees finished 10-15 last year, losing 79-76 to St. Petersburg College in the Suncoast Conference tournament final. Graduation took three key players from that team in Markee Teal, Josh Mason and John Miller.