When the North Idaho College men’s basketball team dropped down from the scholarship-heavy NJCAA to the NWAC two years ago, many wondered if it could still bring in the Division I-level talent it had long attracted.
Fifth-year head coach Corey Symons is still making it happen.
The Cardinals, the defending NWAC tournament champions, are 50-13 the past two seasons, and with a NJCAA-loaded nonconference schedule.
So when NIC begins its third season as a East Region NWAC member this month, it’ll have the services of ex-Garfield star Alphonso Anderson, a 6-foot-7 forward who transferred from the University of Montana.
At point guard, it has former West Seattle High star Nate Pryor, a Washington commit.
But perhaps the most touted player in the league last season, RayQuan Evans, is back after earning NWAC tournament MVP.
Evans, a 6-foot-4 guard from Billings, averaged 22 points, eight rebounds and four assists last season, and his brand of athleticism has piqued the interest of many Division I programs.
Oregon, Georgia and Utah are among the bigger programs that have contacted Evans, according to Symons.
The Cardinals also welcome back 6-foot-8 post Jarod Green, who averaged 10 points and five rebounds as a freshman. Keegan Crosby, who played for Brandon Roy at then-national power Nathan Hale High School in 2017, returns at forward.
“We have about five or six Division-I-level players,” Symons said. “We’re able to recruit because of our history of sending guys (to bigger colleges) and the strength of our program.”
That won’t make winning the East Region substantially easier, he said.
The past three seasons, a team from the East Region – Walla Walla, Spokane and NIC – has gone on to win the NWAC tournament. NIC was swept by Walla Walla last season and split with Spokane.
“Winning the East is tough, and is always our goal,” said Symons, who won the East Region in 2017.
Yusuf Mohamed (6-10) and 6-9 James Carlson, a former Lake City standout and son of NIC women’s coach Chris Carlson, add depth inside for NIC.
The Cardinals open their season at home Nov. 17 vs. Peninsula College, in a rematch of last year’s NWAC title game.
As a player, Jeremy Groth, Community Colleges of Spokane’s seventh-year head coach, set Washington scoring records at Curlew and was also the leading scorer on a Concordia University team that won a NAIA national title in 2003.
The small-school sharpshooter was a pest on defense, too.
Consider the Sasquatch a reflection of their coach.
For the past five seasons, CCS has been the NWAC’s premier scoring outfit, averaging 92 points a game last season while shooting a hair under 40 percent from 3-point range.
Groth doesn’t plan on letting his foot off the pedal this season, which begins Nov. 23 at the Red Devil Classic at Lower Columbia Community College.
“We can score the ball at a high level,” said Groth, whose team finished tied for second in the East Region with rival NIC last season. “We’re excited to get things going.”
The Sasquatch lost two-time All-East Region forward Cesar Sandoval (now at NAIA Northwest University in Kirkland) and most of its scorers to graduation, but Groth believes his new personnel will keep them humming along.
Former Lewis and Clark standout guard Dedrick Pakootas is a returning starter who averaged 13.7 points last season, and shot 41 percent from 3-point range. Isaiah Gotell (7.9 ppg) and JR Delgado (5.5 ppg) round out the experienced returners.
Former Northwest Christian standout Asher Cox, a 6-foot-8 forward, redshirted last season and is expected to help the Sasquatch inside.
Most of Groth’s players are from Spokane and Kootenai counties.
Along with Pakootas and Cox are former area prep standouts Anthony Smith (Lewis and Clark), Tanner McCliment-Call (Post Falls), Hunter Schaffer (Lake City), Jaelon Stith (Medical Lake), Damion Carter (Ferris) and Garrett White (North Idaho Christian).
They’ll grow up quick in the East Region, Groth said, which has produced the NWAC tournament champion the past three years: Spokane in 2016, Walla Walla in 2017 and North Idaho last season.
“It’s such a good league, and there’s really no room for slip-ups,” Groth said.
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