EVANSVILLE, Ind. — As the University of Southern Indiana men’s basketball team prepares for its inaugural season in Division I, its seemingly roster has a completely different look.
Nine of the 14 players are new to the team. Each has found his way to Evansville through different avenues. Some have experience while others will be playing their first collegiate game.
Five join the Screaming Eagles as Division I transfers: Two from the Big Ten, two from the Missouri Valley Conference and another from the Mid-American Conference.
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Here’s how they landed on the West Side.
Sophomore guard from Kent State
When he decided to enter the transfer portal, one of the first people who reached out was USI assistant coach John Spruance.
But it wasn’t just the initial contact that stood out. It was the continued determination they showed during recruitment. From his first visit alongside future teammate Gary Solomon, he could sense they truly wanted him to join the program.
That was all he needed.
“I wanted to go to a coaching staff who believed in me and believed in my game,” Hernandez said. “They let me know that they wanted me to come here and show the world what I can do. They’ve done a good job of making me and my family feel at home.”
Hernandez has spent the past two seasons playing at Kent State in the Mid-American Conference. He averaged 3.2 points and 1.1 rebounds across 52 games.
While with the Golden Flashes, Hernandez nearly got to experience the NCAA Tournament until Kent State fell to Akron in the MAC championship. While it was tough at the time, he learned what it was like to be a part of a successful group.
“I’ve seen what it takes to win games and I want to bring that over here,” Hernandez said. “I want to help USI win as much as possible.”
Sophomore center from Indiana State
As he searched for a new college basketball home, there was one aspect extremely important to him: A tight-knit culture.
From his first phone call with head coach Stan Gouard, he immediately felt that with USI. His intuition was proven correct from the first practice with his future teammates. There was something special.
It was at that moment he knew he was home.
“The energy in there is something I haven’t been a part of in my entire life,” Hittle said. “Everyone is locked in and wants to do well. A great atmosphere to work in.”
The 6-foot-10 big appeared in 16 games at Indiana State last season while averaging 2.9 points and 1.1 rebounds. He redshirted during his first year with the Sycamores as he recovered from a back injury.
He says he learned a lot during two years in the Missouri Valley, from playing as much as watching while sidelined. He’s continued to grow his game, particularly his shooting — a weapon he feels he can use at USI.
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“I want to expand my ability to stretch the floor, just have an inside and outside presence,” Hittle said. “I know how to play the game better than I did a year ago.”
Senior forward from Nebraska, via Indianapolis
This past month has felt like one big reunion.
When the 6-foot-8 graduate transfer went through his first recruitment as a high schooler, Gouard was one of the first to take notice. That’s what led to Lakes spending three years at D-II Indianapolis where he became a two-time all-conference selection.
Being reunited with Gouard, assistant coach John Spruance and senior forward Jacob Polakovich has already made his final year feel special.
“It felt like the old times right away,” Lakes said. “After two years of being injured and not knowing if I was going to get another year again, it’s been really fun.”
Lakes spent the past two seasons playing at the University of Nebraska. However, injuries limited his chances to showcase his abilities. He appeared in just 22 games over two seasons and was granted a medical hardship waiver to use his final year of eligibility at USI.
Although he wasn’t on the court as much as he hoped, he learned a lot from Nebraska coach and former longtime NBA player Fred Hoiberg. He credits him for making himself a smarter player.
“He’s one of the smartest basketball minds there is,” Lakes said. “Being able to learn under him and play under him helped me grow my game more at my IQ level.”
Sophomore guard from Indiana State
It didn’t take long for him to hear good things about USI.
When he began to look for a new place to call home, he asked around about what to expect if he chose to join the Screaming Eagles after two years at the Indiana State.
What he heard, especially from former Indiana State coach Greg Lansing about Stan Gouard, made it an easy decision.
“If (Lansing) trusts you, then I trust you. I heard a lot of good things from him,” Mervis said. “It sounded like a good place, a good culture to build on.”
Having someone familiar by his side has also made it a more simple transition. Hittle, a fellow transfer from Indiana State, has become a close friend to Mervis over the past few years. They were roommates as freshmen in Terre Haute.
Even in a new location, that bond has remained strong.
“Going somewhere new can be different but it’s easier when someone else has the same experience as you,” Mervis said. “We’ve adjusted together through the good and the bad.”
Freshman forward from Michigan State
He admittedly didn’t know much about the Eagles at first, but less than a month after entering the transfer portal, USI piqued his interest.
Sure, the basketball program had much to do with that. But there was something else even more important to him. Something not available at every college.
He wanted to continue pursuing a mechanical engineering degree.
“Combining school and basketball is very important for me,” Nwoke said. “Ever since my visit I’ve loved it here.”
The 6-foot-7 forward spent last season as a walk-on at Michigan State and ultimately redshirted. Even though he didn’t get to see the court with the Spartans, he grew his game under players such as Mady Sissoko and NBA draft pick Max Christie.
He also learned plenty from Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo. Some lessons were simple, others more challenging. But knowledge, in general, is what he plans to bring to the table in Evansville.
“It taught me a lot of discipline. There’s a lot to learn under Izzo,” Nwoke said. “Being there helped change my entire mentality about basketball.”
Contact Courier & Press sports reporter Hendrix Magley via email at [email protected] or via Twitter @TweetsOfHendrix.