The Francis Marion University men's basketball team will begin its 2018-19 season on Friday and Saturday (Nov. 9-10) with a pair of games at the Peach Belt Conference-South Atlantic Conference Challenge in Salisbury, N.C.
FMU will take on the hosts Catawba College on Friday at 6 p.m., and then face Newberry College on Saturday at 4 p.m.
Head Coach Gary Edwards returns for his 13th season at the helm of the Patriots, and brings back five lettermen, including two starters, from the 2017-18 squad which went 20-10 and made the NCAA Tournament for the second time in program history.
FMU will have to replace the school and Peach Belt Conference's all-time leading scorer in guard Detrek Browning, who scored 2,356 points during his four seasons with the Patriots.
Leading the returners for Francis Marion is 6-3 senior forward Brandon Parker, who started all 30 contests and earned third-team All-PBC honors a year ago. The Sumter, S.C., native was second on the Patriots in scoring (14.0 ppg), rebounding (5.7 rpg), and minutes (33.5 mpg). He also ranked in the Top-25 in the conference for both free throw accuracy (73.2%) and three-point shooting (36.5%).
Junior 5-7 point guard Jaquez Smith is also back after earning 28 starts in 2017-18. Smith averaged 5.4 points per contest and finished third on the Patriots with 77 assists.
Last year's sixth man, 6-3 senior guard Ryan Davis, returns after finishing tied for third on the squad in minutes in 2017-18. Davis led FMU in assists (89), and was also the squad's third-leading scorer (10.9 ppg), fourth-leading rebounder (4.5 rpg), and shot over 50 percent from the field.
In regards to that returning trio, coach Edwards said, "Brandon shoots the ball really well. Detrek set him up for a lot of his shots last year, but Jaquez and Ryan are going to do the same thing for him this year. He's taken on such a great leadership role and I can't say enough about what he means to our team from a playing standpoint, but also a leadership standpoint.
"Jaquez has played very well in the preseason, and we're going to ask him to do a lot for us this year. He's got great quickness, can get by people, and I think he's a much-improved shooter, which was something he worked very hard on over the summer. He's a good leader for us as well, and is a good defender who knows what we're trying to do offensively and defensively.
"Ryan is going to do a lot of things for us this year as well, and I feel he is ready for the added responsibility. He's a great penetrator and worked very hard on improving his shot this summer. We're going to ask a lot of those three returners, and they're ready to take on the leadership role and the scoring role that we're losing with Detrek moving on."
Other returning lettermen for the Patriots include 6-0 senior guard Douglas Dwight, who appeared in 13 contests last year, and 6-4 junior forward Kendall Wall, who played in 29 of the squad's 30 games, averaging 2.8 points and 2.8 rebounds per game.
To supplement the returning pieces, FMU has brought in six freshmen: 6-2 guard Alex Cox (Concord, NC), 5-10 guard Gabriel Dickerson (Suffolk, VA), 6-7 forward Winston Hill (Columbia, SC), 6-4 swingman Jalen Jordan (Norfolk, VA), 5-11 guard Julian Smith (Columbia, SC), and 6-7 forward Kailex Stephens (Tuscaloosa, AL).
"It's a great group of freshmen," Edwards said. "They've been working hard, learning, and getting better at each and every practice so it's an exciting time for the program. Our upperclassmen have been good leaders for our young guys, and I think they're going to be very good players in the Peach Belt.
"Kailex and Winston are both going to play the so-called center position, and they both have unbelievable skills. Kailex can shoot, pass, and drive. Winston is coming to us from one of the best high school coaches in the state in Tim Whipple (Irmo High School) and has all the fundamentals down pat.
"I love the freshmen that we have in the program right now, and I like the philosophy we're going with now in getting younger guys in. I think it's going to pay dividends for us down the road."
In addition to the six freshmen, coach Edwards also brought in 6-4 forward Je'Quan Perry, who will have one season of eligibility after transferring to FMU from Division I Florida Atlantic University. Perry featured in 12 games during his lone season with the Owls, having begun his collegiate career at Spartanburg Methodist College.
"I liked him when he was at Spartanburg Methodist. We can't go with just freshmen, you have to have a little bit of maturity, particularly in the Peach Belt," coach Edwards said. "Je'Quan is going to give us that maturity. He's a guy that knows how to play, has been in the big arenas, and big games and is going to be a calming influence for us. We can also put the ball in his hands and he can create some things and score."
With Browning gone, Edwards noted the team will have a very different look offensively this season. "When you have a player like that, you just get the ball in his hands and usually good things happen. This year we have to do it by committee, but I think overall we've got more tools and more weapons. One night Brandon is going to lead us in scoring, and the next night it'll be Ryan, or Kailex, or Winston. That's the way it has looked in the preseason, so I think that will hold true throughout the year."
Having such a young squad this season, coach Edwards is preaching patience with both his staff and his players. "We can't over-react to setbacks, but realize that things will get better. We're going to take our lumps, but I think there will be some good lumps and some learning lumps, so hopefully when we get to the Peach Belt season those freshmen will have a little bit of seasoning to them and be ready to go."
Francis Marion finished the 2017-18 campaign second in the Peach Belt in scoring offense (81.3 ppg) and fifth in scoring defense (75.4 ppg).
FMU and Catawba have split the previous 10 meetings, with the Patriots defeating the Indians 72-70 on a Browning layup with 2.8 seconds remaining in last year's PBC-SAC Challenge.
Francis Marion's schedule includes 13 home contests in the Smith University Center, where the Patriots went 12-2 last season and FMU has won 62.4 percent of its games since the facility opened in 1974. FMU's home opener is set for Thursday, Nov. 15, at 6 p.m. against Methodist University.
Edwards is the second winningest coach in program history with 171 victories.
head coach Gary Edwards