FORT SMITH -- It's been quite a rebuilding journey during the past four seasons for the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith men's basketball program, but the Lions are finally restoring the roar.
UAFS a season ago put together its first winning record (14-13) since 2017 under fourth-year coach Jim Boone. It was the breakthrough season the program has been building toward. UAFS beat ranked teams at home and on the road.
The Lions also had their first winning season in Lone Star Conference play (8-6) and even earned a home playoff game in the league tournament. The Lions took one step forward last year but look to take another with a talented returning group bolstered by a high-impact transfer recruiting class.
"Last year was a monumental season for us," Boone said. "We beat some really good teams last year, which speaks volumes about this group. We continue to stack on experience and know what we need moving forward. I'm really excited about where we are at. This team is a great fit. You can feel the excitement with the players. They can't wait to play that first game."
Gone from last year are Farmington's Matthew Wilson (20 points per game) and C.J. Rollins (14 points and seven rebounds per game), who are both playing professionally overseas.
The Lions will miss that duo but bring plenty of talent back with nine returners in Evan Anderson, Courtney Murrell, Cameron Bush (Joe T. Robinson), Drew Miller (Rogers), David Ekezie, Daryl McElrath, Lukas Reichle, Andrew Iyamah and Drew Irby.
"We lost two great players that had great careers," Boone said. "I don't think you replace them with any one player. But we can fill those gaps with the experience we have. We have a great group that wants to go compete."
Anderson will lead the way among the returners after averaging 10 points, five assists, two rebounds and a steal per contest while playing lockdown defense last season. He was named to the Lone Star Conference's watch list entering the year.
"Coming into this program, I just wanted to establish myself and just get on the court," Anderson said. "I was able to show what I could do defensively. But then I showed my abilities to pass the ball, score and shoot. It's that foundation that I'm continuing to build on right now. It's about keeping the mindset to do everything I can to help this team."
Murrell and Bush bring a guard combination that Boone hasn't quite seen to this level during his 37 years of coaching. They will likely be asked to score more this season, but the backcourt combo is up to the challenge. Murrell averaged 8 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal per game. Bush chipped in 5 points per game to go with 2 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal per contest off the bench.
Miller brings starting experience back after playing key roles when needed most. He averaged just five points per game over the season but shined in the final five games. He averaged 11 points per game and shot 50% from the field during that stretch. David Ekezie also started 14 games last year, shooting 67 percent from the field, while providing scoring and rebounding depth.
Five transfers in Payton Brown (Waldron), Jaxon Ingram, Connor Slater, Furaha Cadeaux de Dieu and Evan White (Bentonville West) with true freshman Jace Linenberger make up the newcomers looking to provide a spark right away.
It's a homecoming for Brown, who comes back to the Lions after averaging 21 points per game while shooting 48% from the field for UAFS in the 2020 season. He sat out last year with an injury at New Mexico Junior College. It's been a seamless transition back into the program with his former teammates excited to have him again.
"He is going to be a great replacement for any scoring that we need this year," Anderson said. "He had a heck of a freshman year. He really helps this team with his shooting and spreading the floor. Teams always have to worry about him, so it opens it up for the rest of us. He already knows the system and has hit the ground running."
A quick stroll around the Stubblefield Center gives anyone a very good idea how successful the UAFS women's basketball program has been over the years.
A national championship banner. Many conference championship banners.
The Lions have been a standout program for quite a while now. But last year in many ways could be considered a program reset. There was a new coach bringing in a new system with the team coming off playing just nine total games in 2020 with COVID restrictions playing a role as well. There were quite a few obstacles for the Lions and then first-year coach Ryan McAdams, but that didn't stop them from laying a solid foundation and even making the conference postseason tournament.
The Lions (7-18) stumbled out of the gates with a 2-7 nonconference schedule but quickly found their way after that. UAFS finished 5-11 down the stretch of the season and now look to build on that.
"Any step is a good step," McAdams said. "We found a way to move forward. I was really proud of the growth and progress we were able to make over the year. Being able to get into the playoffs was special. There were measurements you can look at and point toward progress."
UAFS, picked to finish 12th in the 16-team conference, will look to take that leap with a recruiting class of eight transfers and a true freshman to go along with five returners.
Nya Stewart, Riley Hayes (Bentonville), Laurissa Campbell (Blytheville), Dala Allen and Hannah Boyett return from last year's team. Stewart is the leading returning scorer per game with seven points, while Hayes as a true freshman averaged four points. They each averaged an assist and a steal per game.
Transfers Aaliyah Prince, Truth Taylor, Rodrea Echols, Esther Oluade, Sydney Nunley, Kayla Brundidge, McKenzie Piper and Sinetra Jones with freshman Abby Summitt (Greenwood) make up the newcomers looking to make an impact right away.