When the Mountaineers learned they would be without the services of starting point guard Mike Neal until the beginning of the spring semester, many critics feared the Mountaineers would fall short of their already low expectations. For the most part, they were correct, as Appalachian started the season very slowly, not really beating anyone until a surprising road win at UMKC. The win was uplifting at the time, because it was an actual win, and not a loss. The Roos went on to finish the season with a 8-24 record. The following game, Appalachian went down to Columbia to face South Carolina, and played well, but lost by five points to a team that would eventually finish the season 14-18 and only won four conference games in a down year in the SEC.
Once conference season began in full force, Appalachian knew it would be in a dog fight for top seed in the conference tourney with two other teams. Appalachian opened January with three conference wins over Wofford, Elon and UNCG. Then the Mountaineers starting showing signs of what the theme of the season would end up being. When Appalachian plays their best, they can be pretty decent, and when they play their worst, it can be really bad. The problem, was that there was a big gap between the good App team and the bad one.
The western road swing began with an overtime collapse at Chattanooga. Appalachian held a big lead late in the game and allowed the Mocs to force overtime and eventually win. That was followed by a close loss at Samford to a very hot shooting team. That was followed by another game against Georgia Southern where the Mountaineers let a big lead evaporate, but was able to pull out the win in overtime. The next two games were losses to Davidson who was superior to Appalachian in the regular season, and Charleston, where Applachian lost another lead and gave way to the Cougars.
For the rest of the season, the Mountaineers beat everyone they should have, and lost to the same type of teams. Appalachian beat Georgia Southern again in overtime, blew another lead on the road at Elon before dropping a game to The Citadel at home where the Mountaineers were totally out of it from a mental standpoint.
However, the season came down to the last weekend, with a chance to win the four seed in the conference tournament with two wins. Appalachian snuffed out a double overtime win over Samford and then played their best game of the season in the home finale over Chattanooga.
In the conference tournament, Appalachian handled Furman, who upset Samford in the 5/12 game and gave Davidson a good scare in the semifinals. Davidson went on to win the conference tournament as Appalachian said farewell to Nathan Healy and Jamaal Trice.
The Mountaineers finished 15-16 on the season, winning ten home games, and losing eleven on the road. Jason Capel has basically been assured he will fill out his first coaching contract, but will need to earn a second contract next season. He will be a lame duck coach unless Charlie Cobb grants him a short extension just to ensure an easier path on the recruiting trail.
Healy was the biggest surprise of the season. The former walk-on turned himself into an all-conference player and defensive player of the year. Healy led the team in scoring (14.5), rebounding (7.7), steals (59), and blocks (45). Healy played more minutes, hit more field goals and three pointers, and shot better from the free throw line than any other player on the team.
Jamaal Trice was sick for most of the season from various ailments. Despite that, Trice hit 35 three pointers, shooting 41% from behind the arc, and averaged seven points per game. Trice started seven games and was instrumental to the team down the stretch in the last couple weeks of the season.
The future appears to be bright, but potentially thin in the post, based on what our eyes have seen thus far. Next season’s starting lineup should include Mike Neal, Tab Hamilton, Jay Canty, Tevin Baskin and Micheal Obacha. The Mountaineers used a very short bench all season long, so there is not much tape on freshman Rantavious Gilbert, Frank Eaves or Bennet Rutherford. Brian Okam may not return to school as he has enough credits to graduate, and fell out of favor with Capel after a certain free throw he attempted. Chris Burgess will provide a solid backup to Mike Neal, as he improved more than any other player on the team throughout the season.
The question marks will be whether or not a sophomore or incoming freshman will be able to garner significant playing time. The backcourt is quite crowded, with three more guards committed for the fall, and one forward. Mike Kobani may have the best chance as he is 6’7″ and 250 pounds. Rantavious Gilbert has a great chance to get playing time with his length and potential to be a great defender. Until November, many questions will be answered regarding the direction of the program, from a potential head coach extension to conference realignment.