Stephen F. Austin’s first-year coach, Kyle Keller, was an assistant at Texas A&M the last two seasons. So he is familiar with Rupp Arena and has a sense of the challenge his Lumberjacks face in Friday’s season opener at Kentucky.
“You all have that Big Blue monster there,” Keller said Wednesday. “This is our small little purple monster here.”
However under-sized, and surely under-appreciated, the monster that is Stephen F. Austin basketball has had some bite. The Lumberjacks played in the last three NCAA Tournaments, beating third-seed West Virginia in the East Region last spring and No. 5-seed Virginia Commonwealth in 2014.
Stephen F. Austin has won 59 of its last 60 Southland Conference games. The program also has won 51 “true” road games in the last five years. That’s the most by any program in that span. Kentucky has 31.
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Now for the bad news: The Lumberjacks do not have a player who averaged double-digit points last season and do have eight newcomers.
“Unfortunately, I only have, like, 17 percent of the offense back,” Keller said. “So we’re flipping this thing for the first time in a long time. It’s a brand new team, but expectations are even higher.
“I’m doing what Coach (John) Calipari is doing.”
One big difference: Kentucky annually reloads with a highly rated class of freshman recruits.
Injuries further slowed the retooling at Stephen F. Austin. Keller, who replaced Brad Underwood (who took the job at Oklahoma State), has been without as many as four expected regulars at times this preseason.
Josh Huntley and Nathan Bain came back this week from what Keller called concussion protocol. Huntley had been sidelined more than three weeks, Bain more than a week.
A rotator cuff problem has kept the team’s best player, Ty Charles, off the court for most of preseason practice. And Leon Gilmore missed the team’s 93-72 exhibition victory over Huston-Tillotson last Friday.
“We’ve not been able to get into a rhythm,” Keller said.
To help the process of transforming a group of new players into an effective unit, Keller had the team go on a “mini retreat” in late September. The players lived in cabins, listened to guest speakers and, Keller hoped, got to know each other as people.
“Till they learn to play for each other, there’s no chance to be successful,” Keller said. “We’ve had no adversity. Everybody’s happy because nobody’s minutes have been cut.
“We’re going to face the ultimate adversity Friday night.”
Kentucky’s 156-63 exhibition victory over Asbury last weekend commanded his attention. He joked about bringing a white towel — “John Thompson-style,” he said. “I’ll wave it about five minutes into the game. We may walk off the floor.”
Kentucky references show up again and again in Keller’s coaching career. He was a star baseball player, good enough to overcome three knee surgeries in high school and get a scholarship to play for Oklahoma State. He played first base and outfield. “All the places they could hide you,” he said. “But I was a good hitter.”
His baseball career ended when an errant throw took him off first base and into a collision with a runner. The resulting shoulder injury required surgery.
With baseball done, Keller got the idea to volunteer for the Oklahoma State basketball program. He walked into the office of Coach Leonard Hamilton, once Joe B. Hall’s right-hand man at Kentucky and asked, “You all need some free labor?”
Hamilton ordered Keller to break down video of upcoming opponents and track tendencies. “A perfect way for me to learn,” Keller said. Another novice coach on the staff was Bill Self.
After Oklahoma State, Keller worked on staffs at Tyler Junior College, Kansas and Texas A&M. It was at Texas A&M that he worked with Rick Stansbury, a native Kentuckian who became Western Kentucky coach this spring.
Stephen F. Austin?
The Lumberjacks plan to fly commercially to Louisville on Thursday, then practice at the Mid-America Sports Center in Louisville before coming to Lexington on Thursday night.
Stephen F. Austin at Kentucky
What: Regular-season opener
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network