It has been nearly a decade since the FAMU Men’s Basketball team posted a winning record on the court, and after eight straight losing seasons, the 2015-16 squad is showing signs of engineering a reversal of fortune.
Through seven games and as of Dec. 1 in 2015-16, FAMU was 3-4 overall and already bettering the win total of a year ago, thanks to an improved roster and the application of lessons learned by second-year coach Byron Samuels. This stems from the trials and tribulations of an inaugural campaign a year ago, during which he and his staff had to rebuild the program from scratch.
Hired in the middle of June of 2014, Samuels inherited a series of major challenges at the outset.
Following the 2013-14 season, the six players slated to return for 2014-15 all elected to transfer to other programs when the Rattlers were placed on NCAA academic probation. This action left zero veteran players available to help build FAMU’s team.
Also, the NCAA probation banned players not only from the annual NCAA Tournament, but also from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament in both 2014-15 and 2015-16, imposing additional academic study requirements, while restricting weekly practice times.
Thus, with a brand new coaching staff and a roster made up mostly of walk-ons, the Rattlers struggled to a 2-27 mark—the fewest wins in school history. Yet fans saw a team that hustled and played hard for 40 minutes.
Samuels and his staff recruited through the season and more intensely after the season, and those outreach efforts appear to be paying off, as the 10 new players added to the core of returnees appear to be jelling quickly.
Freshmen Francois Lewis, a 6-9 forward from Orlando, Fla., and guard Justin Ravenal, a 6-1 performer from Lithonia, Ga., have each been named Rookie of the Week in the MEAC this season, and they, along with fellow first year player K’Ja Johnson, a 6-1 guard from Douglasville, Ga. are heading the class of Rattler freshmen early on.
Ravenal and Johnson combined for 16 second-half points in the come-from-behind 73-71 win over Alcorn State in the Corpus Christi Coastal Classic, with Ravenal’s jumper with three seconds left providing the winning margin for the Rattlers.
Yet perhaps the freshest face with the biggest impact is junior guard Malcolm Bernard, a 6-6 wing from Middleburg, Fla., who had to sit out last season after transferring from Charleston Southern.
Bernard leads the Rattlers in scoring (14.4 per game), rebounding (6.9), as well as assists (33) and steals (21), and the come-from-behind win over Alcorn State (Nov. 28), when he turned in the school’s first triple double in memory, scoring 14 points, dishing out 12 assists, and pulling down 11 rebounds.
He captured a spot on the Corpus Christi Coastal Classic all-tournament team after recording 32 points, 18 assists and 17 rebounds in two games against Alcorn State and Abilene Christian.
In the team’s second win over Thomas University (Ga.), Bernard scored a game-high 29 points, every bit of which the Rattlers needed in a 70-68 win.
This talented influx of newcomers has blended well with the returning veterans on the squad led by sophomore guard Craig Bowman, sophomore forward Johnathan Spicer, senior guard Jerran Foster and fourth-year post player Mario Karailiev.
As the season unfolds, Coach Samuels and his staff continue to encourage their charges, and stress the fine points of the game. After their second win over Thomas University, Samuels spoke of the differences between this year’s team and last year’s.
“I would much rather have a two-point win, than a one-point loss,” Samuels said. “I’m not sure if last year’s team would have found a way to win this game.
Sophomore Craig Bowman added: “We work hard each day in practice, and we stress playing team ball, running through our set plays, and staying together.”
That sense of team has paid off as the Rattlers are scoring 66.4 points per game, 11 points per game better than a year ago, and their average assists (11.2) is up from just over 8.3 from last season.