Daniel Mayes, Editor-in-Chief
Three years ago, who could’ve predicted the regular season the Jacksonville State men’s basketball team just wrapped up, that the Gamecocks would set a school record for Division I conference wins and clinch their highest seed in a conference tournament.
Not the current JSU head coach. While the Gamecocks slogged to an 8-23 record in their final season under James Green, Ray Harper was still coaching the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
Not the fans. Not that there were very many back then. Jacksonville State ranked last out of 12 Ohio Valley Conference teams in home attendance then. The Gamecocks were fifth this year.
Certainly not any of the players. Christian Cunningham, a rangy 6-foot-7 post player, is the lone four-year senior on this year’s team. He also is the only player on the roster to have experienced JSU basketball before what many in Jacksonville call the #HarperEffect.
Two years ago, that bold prediction would’ve made a bit more sense.
Enter Harper. Cue the one-year turnaround that saw Jacksonville State go from basement-dwellers to champions. From a program that, even with the optimism of a new, successful coach, was picked last in the league but made the school’s first appearance in the NCAA Division I basketball tournament.
But everyone knows that story.
Off the court dring Harper’s debut season, the foundation was built in a much more real and tangible sense than the usual feel-good story of first-time success provides. The seed that grew into a new normal for Jacksonville State was planted.
“The goal is to keep it going year in, year out,” Harper said. “That’s when you know you’ve got a program not just a team.”
While coaching that 2016-17 team, Ray Harper also was busy building a program.
The first pieces
Three years ago, while Cunningham was putting together a productive individual freshman season on a poor team in Jacksonville, his future frontcourt partner Jason Burnell was busy riding the pine for a young Georgia Southern team.
On a team laden with fellow freshmen, Burnell played just eight minutes a game and scored just 2.9 points a contest as the Eagles slogged to a 14-17 record. Toward the end of the season, Burnell didn’t even get to play in some games.
“At Georgia Southern, it was a situation where I came in, and they weren’t utilizing me like they should have or like I wanted to,” Burnell recalled. “They basically told me I wasn’t good enough.”
Then, Burnell bet on himself.
The DeLand, Fla., native moved closer to home to St. Petersburg College, looking to prove in junior college he was ready to succeed in Division I basketball. Just a few games into his lone season for the Titans, he signed to play for Jacksonville State.
“I went JUCO, and when Coach Harper came and saw me, he immediately told me he wanted to offer me,” Burnell said.
Harper and the Gamecocks had just kicked off their 2016-17 campaign, and Burnell already saw something special in what Harper was building.
“I believed in this coaching staff and the style of play they were using,” Burnell said.
Burnell, a 6-foot-7, 220-pound forward, signed in the early signing period, with JSU making the announcement Nov. 15, 2016. He joined Mississippi State transfer Maurice Dunlap in the Gamecocks’ young signing class. Dunlap, a 6-2 guard, shared a similar story to Burnell.
He appeared in just seven games for the Bulldogs, scoring just 20 total points before an injury in December of his true freshman year ended his season and his time in Starkville.
Dunlap played two years at Jones County Junior College in Mississippi, then, like Burnell, jumped at the chance to return to Division I with Jacksonville State.
“I remember the first day I stepped on campus, I met Maurice on the stairs, and we just got to talking and laughing it up,” Burnell recalled. “That’s been my boy ever since.”
With the two transfers already on board, Harper wasn’t done adding former Division I players.
A 6-3 guard, Jamall Gregory, came in after spending a year at South Carolina and one at Chipola (Fla.) College, and 6-3 guard Marlon Hunter, a former player under Harper at Western Kentucky, joined Jacksonville State after a yearlong pit-stop at Odessa (Texas) College.
Gregory was just grateful for the chance to make it back to Division I.
“Honestly, I didn’t have any offers leaving JUCO,” Gregory recalled. “Jacksonville State was the only offer. This was definitely a second chance for me, because if I didn’t accept this offer, I don’t know where I’d be and I don’t know what I’d be doing, so I’m definitely appreciative of the second chance.”
By the time the dust settled, the Gamecocks bolstered its roster by adding four players with experience at high-Major schools or better. All four would be eligible to play in 2017-18.
But Harper wasn’t done with that offseason just yet.
Detrick Mostella, a 6-1 guard from Decatur, came on board after spending three seasons at Tennessee. Ty Hudson, a 6-1 point guard and a two-year veteran of Clemson, joined late in the summer. Both had to sit out the 2017-18 season, waiting their chance to see the floor again.
With seniors and OVC tournament team holdovers Malcolm Drumwright and Norbertas Giga still on the roster, the new squad of transfers slotted in to help Jacksonville State prove that year one of the Harper era wasn’t a fluke.
The 2017-18 season saw the Gamecocks improve their record again, finishing 23-13, but JSU fell in the semifinals of the OVC tournament, then were bounced in the same round of the College Basketball Invitational.
With Mostella and Hudson eligible to suit up in 2018-19, the recruiting boon of that one offseason was finally ready to bloom to its full effect.
“On paper, you hear Clemson, Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Western Kentucky, Georgia Southern, you automatically think the talent is there,” Burnell said. “And it was. It always has been. I think this season it’s showed more than it did last year.”
Coming into 2018-19, the expectations were certainly there for Jacksonville State. The Gamecocks were picked third in the OVC headed into this season.
But there were still questions.
Drumwright was gone after serving as the go-to guy and steady rock at the point guard for Harper’s first two JSU teams. Giga, who anchored the frontcourt offense for the previous two seasons, had graduated as well.
The Gamecocks appeared to need of a new leader.
Hunter and Gregory all had their flashes in 2017-18, but none seemed ready-made to take up the slack.
Mostella and Hudson had their moments at their respective Power-Five schools, but neither had proven he was capable of being a top option game-in, game-out.
Cunningham was the most experienced player on the team, but his expertise lies in swatting shots into the stands and dunking down low — not in leading an offensive attack.
It was Burnell who stepped up.
“JB” was an on-and-off starter in the three-headed frontcourt with Cunningham and Giga in 2017-18, and averaged a perfectly respectable 11.2 points and six rebounds, but he was needed to take a step forward to lead this year’s Gamecocks.
“Last year, I struggled a little bit to adjust my game when I first got here,” Burnell said. “This year, I think I really came into myself and really came into my game, and I have no one to thank more than Coach Harper. He’s helped me develop on and off the court.”
This season, Burnell ranks fifth in the OVC with 17 points a game, and he’s second in rebounding with 9.6 a game. More than that, he’s come into his own as the leader of the team.
“The talent level on this team is great, and for me to be in the position to be a leader is a huge honor,” Burnell said. “These guys, I love them all, and they trust me and I trust them. To know those guys want to put the ball in my hand is special.”
With Burnell in place as the leader, that class of transfers flourished around him.
Hudson has stepped in as the starting point guard. Mostella, after starting a few games early, has locked down a position as an offensive spark plug off the bench.
Hunter, Gregory, and even Dunlap took their bigger roles with increased playing time and ran with it.
That class of transfers, along with a few returnees and fresh faces, became the nucleus of the team.
Of the top seven players in minutes played for JSU, six of them transferred to Jacksonville State during that OVC tournament championship season. The lone holdover, Cunningham, anchors a group of castoffs that plays as if they are on their last chance to succeed in college basketball.
“We all came from situations where we thought we might not have belonged,” Burnell said. “We all came here with a chip on our shoulder. That’s why I think we always play on edge, because of our passion and our background. That’s what makes us so unique”
This sense of urgency, of being on edge, has propelled the Gamecocks program into new heights. That mentality was all brought in with one recruiting class.
“I think the fact that we are all mostly transfers gives us sort of a chip on our shoulders,” Gregory said. “We want to show everyone we can still play. A lot of people look at transferring as a bad thing, but we all came here together to try to do something special, and that’s what the plan is.”
If you consider becoming Jacksonville State’s best team in its Division I history as “special,” then mission accomplished — this year’s team has 23 regular-season wins, 15 conference victories, and the third seed in the conference tournament. All are JSU Division I records.
With their OVC opener set for Thursday at 8:30 p.m. against either Eastern Illinois or UT Martin, the Gamecocks have a chance to validate all that.
Those transfers have a chance to validate themselves as players, to validate that they belong, and to validate their place in school history.
“People have always said this may go down as the best class in Jacksonville State DI history, and I honestly believe that,” Burnell said. “On paper, I don’t think there’s going to be another class come through better than us.
“I always tell the coaches they aren’t going to find another me. It’s hard to find guys like us.”