New-look Argos seek to build on historic 2017-18 season
By Tyler Wood
When Coach Jeff Burkhamer took the helm as the head coach of the UWF men’s basketball team in 2015, no one envisioned a turnaround so quick that the Argos would win 28 games in just his third year with the program.
Fortunately, the Argos have exceeded expectations, especially in the last two seasons. Before Burkhamer first stepped into his office in April of 2015, the Argos were coming off a 21-loss season in which the Argos went 3-19 in Gulf South Conference games.
In Burkhamer’s first year with the program, the Argos faced a steep climb back into relevance. Finishing the year with a 7-19 record didn’t look like much of an improvement from a glance, but Burkhamer was patiently waiting for the team to grow, both as individuals and as a group.
The 2016-17 season was the beginning of a historic shift for the program, with the team nearly tripling their win total from the previous season. The Argos finished with a 20-8 record, and finally appeared relevant in the GSC, finishing the season with the program’s most conference wins ever and their first winning season since 2011-12.
Then, the record-breaking season of 2017-18 began. Led by seniors D.J. Thorpe, Marvin Jones, Darryl Tucker and Moter Deng, the Argos burst into the season white-hot, winning 12 straight games to start 12-0 and ranked in the top 25 for the first time ever. Rattling off win after win, the Argos were on pace to shatter the school record for just about every category imaginable. Even the team’s losses were nail-biters. Finishing the regular season 26-3, those three losses came by five total points, losing two of them by a single point and one by three.
Following the regular season with their first GSC Tournament Championship, the Argos also received their first NCAA Tournament berth. Although the Argos lost in the opening round of the NCAA Division-II tournament to Barry University, the season was nothing short of monumental.
“It was a great season,” Burkhamer said. “Just a lot of positives. A lot of good things and a really great way to finish the year.”
Now, the Argos will face perhaps their toughest challenge yet if they hope to continue Burkhamer’s trend of improving on each previous season. While winning more than 28 games seems almost impossible, Burkhamer says it’s not altogether out of the realm of possibility.
With the departure of Thorpe, Jones, Tucker and Deng, the Argos will be faced with the challenge of filling the shoes of some of the best players in UWF’s history. Burkhamer and the recruiting staff understood the void would not necessarily be completely filled. Tucker was an All-American, Thorpe was an elite defender, Jones was a prolific outside shooter and Deng was an all-around athlete who could beat you in many ways.
“Those are not easy guys to replace,” Burkhamer said. “We feel like we’ve got some guys that are talented like them, but the difference is those guys were here in their second year, and these guys are in their first year here. So just as it took them a little while, it will probably take these guys a little while but we feel pretty good about the new guys being talented enough and athletic enough to step in and really help.”
Jon Brown (North Alabama), Guard: 6-4, 200, Redshirt-Freshman
Jalen Greene (Miles College), Guard: 6-2, 190, Redshirt-Freshman
Alasanne Kah (Old Dominion), Forward: 6-10, 215, Graduate
Rijnard Hartman (Ohio Christian), Forward: 6-11, 240, Junior
Anthony Gomes (ASA College Miami), Guard: 6-1, 170, Redshirt-Junior
Maxwell Benoit (USC Salkehatchie), Guard: 6-3, 190, Junior
Chinedu Okonkwo (McCook CC), Forward: 6-7, 230, Junior
Jon Brown is a 6-foot-4 guard who redshirted last season at North Alabama, which competed in the GSC until this season, when they transitioned to Division-I in athletics and will now play in the Atlantic-Sun Conference.
“I think (Brown) has a chance to be the freshman of the year in the [GSC],” Burkhamer said. “He’ll get a chance to play a lot. I think he’s game-ready, good body for a freshman. He’ll have a chance to really make an impact.”
Of the seven newcomers to the roster, Alasanne Kah is the only Division-I transfer. Kah is a 6-foot-10 graduate from Old Dominion, where he sat out the 2017-18 season due to injury.
“Kah is a big kid,” Burkhamer said. “He has only a year to play but he’s a guy that we really need to have play well. He can play either post position, it doesn’t matter.”
Anthony Gomes is another guard who can help the Argos replace the outside threat of Marvin Jones, who, when hot, could score from just about anywhere on the court.
“[Gomes] averaged a bunch of points at ASA,” Burkhamer said. “He’s a guy we need to come in and help us score.”
Maxwell Benoit has plenty of experience at the junior college level, and Burkhamer thinks that his success at that level will translate well on the court for the Argos.
“Benoit has been a scorer in the past,” Burkhamer said. “He started at Daytona [State] and went to USC Salkehatchie, so he’s been at two good junior college programs where he’s had good numbers. I think [Gomes and Benoit] on the wings can really help us.”
Jalen Greene adds even more depth at the guard position, where the Argos are overflowing with talent and experience. While Greene turned down an offer from UWF out of high school, one year at Miles College was all it took for him to open back up the recruiting process and eventually end up with the Argos.
“[Greene] is a kid we actually recruited out of high school,” Burkhamer said. “He’s a big, strong point guard that can give us some depth there.”
While Henri Ventoniemi at 6-10 is a tall, strong inside presence for the Argos, he was three inches taller than anyone else on the team last year. Not this time. Rijnard Hartman, a 6-foot-11 forward from South Africa, has transferred from Ohio Christian, but has been battling an injury throughout the preseason.
“It’s a great story with [Hartman],” Burkhamer said. “He was actually recruited by Oklahoma out of high school and then before he came here he was recruited by Notre Dame. He’s had a tough preseason. He’s been out all preseason hurt, so we don’t know when he’ll be back or what kind of production he’ll have.”
Chinedu Okonkwo is another big-bodied forward the Argos have added, but he too is dealing with an injury that could keep him sidelined for most of the 2018-19 season.
“[Okonkwo] is a big, 6-7 strong, tough kid,” Burkhamer said. “I don’t know if he’ll play this year. He tore his ACL right at the end of last season. We just don’t know, but he would give us a lot of depth and strength down inside.”
While these seven players are still unproven at UWF, there are two players who are not. Senior guard Rashaan Benson and senior forward Henri Ventoniemi were instrumental in the 28-win season a year ago. Benson is on pace to break the all-time assists record at UWF, and Burkhamer says Ventoniemi has continually improved in the offseason.
“[Benson] has been a three-year starter,” Burkhamer said. “He’s played in big games and he’s really got to be our leader. He’s also coming off an injury, just now coming back to practice. We’re hoping that he’ll respond well and won’t have any issues and get right into the flow of the season.
“[Ventoniemi] is a guy that has gotten better and better every year,” Burkhamer said. “He just continues to get better and we’ll expect a big senior year from him.”
Benson understands that Burkhamer has built a winning culture that is new to the UWF basketball program, and he says that getting the new players to buy into that culture has been a main focus for him in the offseason.
“We’re just trying to get them to get in line with the culture,” Benson said. “We already set a culture from the first time we got here three years ago. We just want to let them know it’s a team that works together and if you want to get in line we’ll win a lot of games like we did last year, because we were a close-knit group.”
While last year was special in many ways, Benson says he doesn’t expect the team to look back on the 2017-18 season in order to build momentum, but instead to wipe the slate clean and build a successful program with the players they have now.
“We don’t try to piggyback off of last year because that was last year and this is a whole new team,” Benson said. “But we set the blueprint last year, that if we can trust each other, which we can do this year, we’ll win a lot of games.”
Ventoniemi says his goal to finish his collegiate career is to help lead the Argos to their second GSC Championship.
“There’s a lot of new guys coming in,” Ventoniemi said. “We just got to get better as a team. The new guys got to learn the system. Obviously we have really good chemistry outside of the court, so bringing that onto the court, we’ll just try to build from there our new team.”
The regular season will open on Nov. 9 in Albany, Ga. against Fort Valley State. The Argos will take the court at the UWF Field House for the first time this season on Nov. 20, when they will host Spring Hill at 7:30 p.m.
For now, Burkhamer, Benson, Ventoniemi and all of the Argos are focused on one game at a time, trying to slowly inch their way back towards another shot at the NCAA tournament.
“I feel like we got a good chance to make it back to where we were,” Benson said. “It’s going to start with me and Henri leading those guys back to the promised land, so I’m up for the challenge.”