Return of McNeese Basketball
When Dru Kuxhausen launched the final shot of last year’s regular season it signaled the return of competitiveness for the McNeese State basketball program.
His buzzer-beating 3-pointer sank rival Lamar and put the Cowboys back in the Southland Conference tournament for the first time in four years.
With the 15-17 campaign under their belts, including a seven-game win streak and even a sellout crowd, McNeese had momentum and the feeling of a program on the up tick.
Fast forward to the present and nothing could be further from the truth. As the Cowboys get set to start year three under head coach Heath Schroyer nothing is the same, not even the skipper’s job title.
“It sure looks different,” said Schroyer as his team prepares for the opener Wednesday at Nebraska. Tip-off is set for 11 a.m. on the Big Ten Network.
Calling this a great opportunity, Schroyer puts a spin on a year that resembles more of a great challenge for those on the outside looking in. The Covid-19 pandemic is just one of the concerns for the coach who is doubling as the school’s interim athletic director.
“We are going to do the right thing, listen to our medical team and trainers, and follow all the protocols,” said Schroyer. “We are going to control what we can control.”
We haven’t yet mentioned the Cowboys don’t have a home floor and players have been displaced not once but twice by hurricanes. Like the community and university it represents, the basketball team is rebuilding from storms not just on the court but in the town.
“It’s been a lot,” said Schroyer, whose team worked out at Louisiana-Lafayette for a time. “They were great to us, but it is good to be back home. We felt a little like nomads for a time.”
But the Cowboys won’t be fully at home this year. They will play their home games back at Burton Coliseum, a place they know well but left two years ago for a brand new and sparkling on-campus arena. Schroyer has never coached a game at Burton, where fewer fans showed up. McNeese’s first home game is Monday night against Bacone College of Oklahoma.
“This has been tough on everybody but I’m excited about this team and this season,” said Schroyer. “We have worked hard and the kids have stayed together. Now I’m just looking forward to playing basketball.”
But even that is not easy. With a rise in Covid cases both locally and nationally, a good deal of time is spent by players testing and going through protocols for health like never before. And every scheduled game has to be taken as a maybe up until the ball is tossed in the air.
Then their is also the concern of future lockdowns and crowd sizes, all this while McNeese players are still unable to get into their classrooms and rebuilding their own lives from what was lost in hurricanes Laura and Delta.
It is safe to say no college athletes have had to go through as much in a six to seven month period as those from McNeese.
“I’m proud of the way these kids have responded to these challenges,” said Schroyer.
Now Kuxhausen, who was selected to the preseason All-SLC first team, will lead his Cowboys back to his home state for a game to start his senior year.
“I’m excited to be going home,” said Kuxhausen, who is from Scottsbuff, Nebraska. “I am looking forward to playing in front of my family, that is if they are allowed in.”
He will try to build off his record-setting first season at McNeese, when he led the nation in made 3-point shots at 125, which includes that winner at Lamar.
Kuxhausen is joined in the backcourt by second team preseason SLC selection A.J. Lawson.
“Having two experienced and talented guards is a big plus for us,” said Schroyer. “It gives us a solid foundation to build upon.”
But he also likes his depth this year, which Schroyer says can go nine or 10 deep. That has not been a luxury he’s had his first two seasons at McNeese.
Still, this season feels more and more like a strange one, with talk of Covid, players staying in the bubble and playing for a town which really needs a positive distraction.
“We want to keep the bubble as tight as we can,” Schroyer said. “I tell the players I don’t want you to live like a monk, but I want you to live like a monk.”
He is also selling them on playing for their community.
“We have a unique opportunity to help a university and a community rebuild,” Schroyer said. “This program is starting to take on the personality of Lake Charles with grit and drive.”
This year won’t be about keeping the momentum of a program going but rather that of a town battling back from destruction.
That makes this McNeese basketball season perhaps more important than any before.
Jim Gazzolo is the host of Eye on Sports on CBS-Lake Charles