Returning players help young recruits adapt to rigors of NCAA play

Elliott Fifer

On a roster with no returning players at the guard position, coach Greg McDermott can sleep well knowing he has great depth and leadership in his frontcourt this season.

A trio of returning players – Jiri Hubalek, Rahshon Clark and Wesley Johnson – have been key in the early-season practices at acclimating some of the younger post players to the pace and competitive nature of collegiate basketball.

“This summer was very encouraging to see some of the leadership that took place with Jiri Hubalek, Rahshon Clark and Wesley Johnson in particular, in getting those new guys to feel comfortable with our team and understand the level of accountability and the expectations that we were going to have with this basketball program,” McDermott said. “That couldn’t have gone any better than it did.”

Although Hubalek is listed as questionable for the season opener on Nov. 9 against Winston-Salem State because of a foot injury, he has gained 25 pounds in the off-season and will be a key addition to the Cyclone frontcourt when he returns. The senior averaged 11.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game last season.

Also a senior, Clark will return at the small forward spot where he contributed 6.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last year. Johnson, who was named to the All-Big 12 freshman team last year, returns as the leading scorer (12.3) and rebounder (7.9) from last season.

Johnson will move to the off-guard spot this year in order to make room on the floor for freshman phenomenon Craig Brackins, a 6-foot-10-inch, 230-pound power forward that McDermott said has surprised him with his rebounding ability.

“Craig has been our most consistent rebounder in practice and that’s the reason he’s earned the starting job. I think that’s a very important aspect of our team is to have someone that we can count on the backboards on both ends of the floor in that front line,” McDermott said. “Last year, too often it was Rahshon and Wesley that were responsible for the lion’s share of our rebounds and we need some more of that to come out of our front line this year.”

Hubalek has taken Brackins under his wing and shown him the ropes of playing the post in the Big 12, something Brackins said has been helpful to him.

“We have a lot of chemistry,” Brackins said of his relationship with Hubalek. “We get along and we hang out off the court so I think that hanging out off the court brings a lot on the court.”

As far as Cyclone players are concerned, they are all impressed with the talent and size Brackins brings to the front court.

“He’s very versatile,” Johnson said. “He’s another big body down low that we can have and he’s long, so I’m looking forward to playing with him.”

Hubalek agreed Brackins has impressed early on, but his supporting cast is also a solid bunch.

“Craig Brackins is a great player. He brings everything to the table – athleticism, talent, all that,” Hubalek said. “That’s definitely going to help our team, but it’s not just him. It’s Alex Thompson and Clayton Vette and Cory Johnson. We’re just very deep, so that’s going to help us.”

The 6-foot-10-inch, 250-pound Thompson, a U of I transfer, will see his first action as a Cyclone this season after redshirting last year due to NCAA rules. Vette, a 6-foot-9-inch, 250-pound freshman and last year’s Mr. Basketball in Iowa, and Cory Johnson, a 6-foot-7-inch, 240-pound sophomore are also expected to contribute off the bench.

“We have more depth this year, which is great,” Clark said. “It can take a lot of load off of Jiri. Alex Thompson and Cory Johnson are going to come in and do a great job.”