Bearkats Picked to Win Conference, Open Season Saturday

The Sam Houston State University men’s basketball team is set to tipoff their season on Saturday at Johnson Coliseum against the LeTourneau University Yellow jackets.

Preseason Southland Conference poll voters expect the Bearkats to accomplish big things this season as the Kats were tabbed preseason favorites to win the conference championship and earn their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2010. The high-expectations have the Bearkats fired up.

“The high expectations are set and the conference guys set it for us,” senior guard Paul Baxter said. “They picked us first in the conference and this is the first time in my five years here that we were picked first to win it all. We’ve always outdone our expectations and this year we’ll do the same thing.”

A key factor to this year’s team is the chemistry amongst the players. The Bearkats have returned every starter and rotational player from last season, which includes the team’s leading scorers. Senior guard Dakarai Henderson (14.3 PPG last season) and senior center Aurimas Majauskas (14.3 PPG last season) are expected to be the floor generals.

Henderson is excited to start his last season as a collegiate student-athlete.

“It feels great to get back on the court,” Henderson said. “It’s my last season and I’m going out every single game like it’s my very last because I’ve been waiting for this moment. It goes by so quick, but I’m embracing every moment. I love the family bondage that we have as a team”

Over the summer, the Kats had a great opportunity to build that bondage by traveling to Costa Rica. With regulation the NCAA allows a trip every four years, so SHSU took advantage. The team spent a whole day at an orphanage, went ziplining and even played a game against the Costa Rica national team.

Head coach Jason Hooten thinks the trip was beneficial in preparation for the upcoming season.

“The greatest thing about our team is our chemistry,” Hooten said. “Getting that trip to Costa Rica gave us a head start on the season and I think it gave us a head start on some chemistry. The trip really bonded this team and brought them together. It’s fun to watch these guys and the joy they bring every day.”

Another big addition to this season’s Bearkat squad is the welcoming back of Baxter. He was held off the court all of last season with a lingering stress fracture in his foot. The last time Baxter suited up in a Bearkat uniform was during the 2014-2015 season, which he started 34 of 35 games and averaged 8.4 points per game.

“[Being injured] last year just reignited that fire,” Baxter said. “It really had me thinking about how much this really means to me and the big picture of it all. It really has me hungry and I’m ready for the season.”

Baxter’s return will have a great impact on the team both on and off the court. Hooten praises him for the player and man that he is.

“Having Paul just on the court alone with his presence, leadership, toughness, coachability, the person who he is and I mean there is no one who cares more about his teammates or his university than Paul Baxter,” Hooten said. “Just knowing every day that you’re going to war with a warrior. He’s a guy that leads his troops and it’s a very good feeling to have as a coaching staff.”

SHSU fell just short from making a Southland Conference finals appearance last season, in which the team lost a heartbreaker in the semi-finals to Texas A&M Corpus-Christi 79-76. Henderson believes the team, as well as himself, learned a lot from the post-season loss.

“[The loss] got us to know that nothing is promised,” Henderson said. “Nothing is given so we have to go out like every possession is our last. We have to make certain stops and be alert on everything.”

The SHSU men’s basketball program have not captured a conference title since the 2009-2010 season when Bob Marlin was the head coach. The Bearkats will look to change that statistic as the quest for a fourth Southland Conference championship begins Saturday.

“Being picked to win the conference comes with a ton of responsibility and we’re taking that head on,” Hooten said. “We understand the challenge and we always feel like Sam Houston State has a target because of our consistency. Our guys aren’t afraid of the challenge. They aren’t afraid of what this upholds. We’re ready and we’re excited.”

The first game of the season is set to tipoff on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Johnson Coliseum.

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