By Joseph Russell Messenger-Inquirer | Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2015 12:00 am
When Kentucky Wesleyan men’s basketball coach Happy Osborne went recruiting prior to this season, he was seeking a certain type of player.
Talent and ability are often at the top of a coach’s list of requirements when bringing in new players, and the second-year Panthers coach was certainly searching for the best he could find, but he also wanted a group of players that would mesh well on the court and, perhaps more importantly, off the court.
That line of thinking resulted in 11 new faces within the Panthers’ program this season -— eight of which are transfers — and Osborne called the process a “seamless transition.”
“It’s because they’re all great kids,” Osborne said. “They’ve done the job for us academically, and they represent our program in the manner I want it represented. I think they all have a common goal, which helps. They all want to win. Everybody likes everybody, and it’s a very close-knit group.”
Point guard Marcus Fillyaw, a junior who transferred to KWC from Southern Illinois, said with having so many new faces entering the program, including himself, playing pick-up basketball during the summer was a big key to initially coming together as a group. Most of the team, especially the newcomers, played on the same squad during the annual Owensboro Dust Bowl.
“It’s been pretty easy,” Fillyaw said. “From the very beginning, everybody gelled together. Nobody has any issues with anybody. Everybody’s personality —we have the same goal, and we want to win and that makes it really easy to get along. Off the court we’re close too, like a big family. It’s the closest I’ve come together with a group of guys.
“Most of us were in the same situation. We all transferred in, and we were all trying to fit in at the same time. That made it easier, too.”
The Panthers players all live in the same building on campus and often have their doors open to hang out with each other, Fillyaw said. Though there are times when everybody wants a little privacy, he added, those periods “don’t last very long.”
Junior forward C.J. Blackwell, a Los Angeles native who transferred from Loyola Marymount, said the team came together almost immediately, resulting in total trust amongst the Panthers.
“I’ve been around a lot of teams, and there are some guys you have to watch out for, but I trust these guys with pretty much everything,” Blackwell said.
Being so close also helps when the team takes long bus rides to face out-of-town opponents, he added.
“We had a 16-hour drive to Lake Superior State earlier this year,” Blackwell said. “We all just sat together and talked and laughed. We’re different, but we’re all so similar too. We just stick together.”
It also helps to pass the time when the team has a resident comedian, which is a title most of the Panthers say belongs to senior guard Hikeem Stewart.
“Hikeem loves to dance, and he loves to do imitations,” sophomore guard Ken-Jah Bosley said. “He’s really good at imitations, he’s really a funny guy. He doesn’t take anything too seriously. Any time we’re down, we look to him for some jokes. He’s definitely a competitor on the court, he plays hard, but when we need to relax or take a break, he’ll be the funniest guy on the team.”
The Panthers are just like any other group of college friends. They like to joke around, play video games, watch television or movies and listen to music, but at the end of the day, they realize they went to KWC to fulfill a purpose.
Forward Pat Neel, a senior who has been with the team for four years, said it’s one of the best teams he’s been around, and they do their best to represent the Panthers within the community.
“It’s been great,” he said. “We’ve got a great group. I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys. We work hard, we go hard at practice, but once it’s over, we’re cool again. Everybody works day in and day out.
“I feel like we all represent Kentucky Wesleyan very well. Each of us play our parts in representing this school. When Happy did his recruiting, he didn’t just look for talent, but he looked for good guys. He looked for character, and I think he did a great job.”
According to Bosley, a two-year starter and the team’s leading scorer, a lot of the squad’s off-court relationships have become an extension of the team once it hits the hardwood.
“We have some people who were brought up different ways in different places,” Bosley said. “We all know that we’re not the same people, but once we’re on the basketball court, we all want to win and go as far as possible. Everybody throws away their egos and plays for each other.”
The Panthers will look to bounce back from a weekend loss at Trevecca when they host Central State at 7 p.m. at the Sportscenter, but many within the team insist they remain the same close-knit group through each win and each loss.
“It’s been family since day one, off the court and on the court,” Blackwell said. “We started off rough, game-wise, but a lot of things off the court pulled us together to hopefully finish strong.”
Neel agreed, noting that even if the Panthers drop a game or two, they stick together and get right back to work at practice.
“Each game, I feel like we improve,” he said. “We may not play our best, but we know what to work on and how to improve. I can’t think of a terrible practice we’ve had. All of our practices are fairly good.”
The Panthers, standing at 16-6 and 5-3 in conference play, have proven that they can string together several wins in a row, but they have also struggled at various points during the season as well. Even with the losses, there is no finger-pointing or blaming amongst the players. Each player knows their teammates support them no matter what on the court, and maybe that’s why they’ve become so close off of it.
“This is one of the best groups of guys I’ve ever been around,” Fillyaw said. “I love all these guys.”
Joseph Russell, (270) 691-7311,