With a wealth of players returning for the upcoming season, the Bulldogs didn’t introduce many new faces this time around.
Only three incoming freshmen are joining the Tennessee Wesleyan men’s basketball program this recruiting cycle, as the Bulldogs graduated only two seniors from last season.
Two of the new Bulldogs are players familiar to the area. Luke Burrows, from Polk County, joins the program coming off District 5-AA Player of the Year honors. Burrows, who will also play baseball for TWU, averaged around 19 points per game his senior season at Polk.
“I’ve known Luke for a very long time, from middle school on,” said TWU Coach Ray Stone. “He’s always just played both ends very hard. He’s going to give you his all on the offensive end, and he’s going to give you his all on the defensive end. So just a really good, tough kid.”
Also coming from close to the area is Sam Belau, who was a 3-point threat when he played at Walker Valley.
“He’s a lefty shooter, and he brings some offense to the table,” Stone said.
Dawson Epperson, from Union County, rounds out the incoming group of freshmen.
“He’s just a flat-out scorer,” Stone said of Epperson. “He averaged 23 points his senior year and scored over 1,000 points in his career.”
Stone called his incoming signing class “tough competitors,” and they will have to be to earn playing time with TWU returning not only its top three scorers from last season, but several players coming off their redshirt year.
“Fortunately enough, we didn’t really need to bring in a lot of guys,” Stone said. “I had several guys who were redshirting last year who practiced every day.
“I’m really relying on those guys who sat out this past year redshirting. That gave them a year to learn the system. And two of those gentlemen had already played before but sat out and redshirted this year, so they’ve already got experience playing in this conference already.”
The two veterans back in action after their redshirt are senior Todd Lansden and junior Noah Fager, both from Chattanooga.
Two former standouts from nearby Sweetwater, Kolbe Billingsley and Matthew Kile, will also suit up after redshirting their first year in the program. Benjamin Pitts and Timothy Chatman round out the redshirt freshmen for this winter.
“All the redshirts really worked their tails off to be prepared for next year,” Stone said.
Elisha Mayberry, a 6’6” junior guard who transferred in from NCAA Division II Glenville State, will also suit up this season.
“We were going to play him this year, but some hours got mixed up and he wasn’t able to play,” Stone said. “He has that Division II experience. He’s a strong kid, and he can guard.”
Also eligible this season is Darwin Hubbard, a 6’4”, 235-pound transfer at forward from Reinhardt. Because Hubbard transferred within the Appalachian Athletic Conference, he was required to sit a year.
“He’s just a strong, tough kid who will bring us some strength down below in the paint,” Stone said of Hubbard.
And rounding out the transfers for this season is Brandon Tyler, who arrived in Athens after his former school, Cincinnati Christian University, closed down. Tyler practiced the second half of the season with the Bulldogs and is eligible this season.
The incoming freshmen, transfers and players coming off redshirt seasons will join a core that helped TWU win nine of its final 11 games last year, which lifted the Bulldogs to a 15-13 overall record, 13-11 AAC record and an AAC tournament berth. That is momentum Stone hopes to build on this winter.
Returning are Bryant Bernard, who led the Bulldogs with 16 points per game and also led the team in steals, Ty Patterson, who was second in scoring with 13 points per game and the leading rebounder with seven per game, and former Sweetwater standout Dominique Oggs, who as a freshman was third on the team with 12 points per game and also pulled five boards per game.
“Hopefully we can start off the same way we finished,” Stone said. “We had a nice little run down the stretch, a much-needed run, to get ourselves into the tournament. I think that built a lot of confidence in the team and gave those guys who sat out an opportunity to see what we could be made of. And having those three top scorers returning back, we have a chance to be really special if we can stay healthy.”
However, the threat of COVID-19 still lingers. Currently, the NAIA plans for the basketball season to proceed in full with no delays, but those plans could change depending on the situation as the scheduled start to the season in late October draws closer.
“I like our chances right now if we’re able to have a season, with COVID-19,” Stone said. “Right now, we’re planning to play, of course, and there’s no delays or pushbacks right now, but we never know. It’s day to day.”