The University of Central Arkansas’ new men’s basketball coach Russ Pennell did not waste any time in changing the face of Bears Basketball, signing nine players on the first day of the national signing period, with the possibility of more letters of intent shortly.
Pennell, who played at UCA from 1982-84, retained only one player (Ethan Lee) from this year’s squad, but added nine newcomers on Wednesday. They include: point guard Jordan Howard from Chandler, Ariz.; forward Michael “Boo” Milligan Jr., from Los Angeles; guard Michael Martin from Coffeyville Community College; forward Joel Feigler from Phoenix College; guard Thatch Unruh from Branson, Mo.; forward Justin Foreman from Grand Canyon; guard Derreck Brooks from Phoenix College; guard Jeff Lowery from Grand Canyon, and forward Otas Iyekekpolor from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
“I’m extremely happy with this first class because I think we got a little bit of everything,” said Pennell. “We got size, quickness, speed, shooters ... I think we addressed all the needs of a basketball team. Now we just have to mature and grow up. In my mind there were three criteria with this first signing class. No. 1 was talent. But 1A and 1B were academics and character. Because I think if you have those two things, that leads to winning.
“We were just fortunate that this group of guys was still available. I have to admit, I was a little bit surprised that there were this many good players still available. A number of them have a story, that what they were looking for just wasn’t coming about. It’s not that they were overlooked as much as they were being picky. And we were able to kind of fill that need for them, and them for us.
“That was really a blessing because I didn’t have any idea what would be available when we made that decision to kind of start over.”
Howard is a 5-foot-11, 180-pound guard who played at Perry High School, where he led the state of Arizona in scoring in 2013 at 25.6 points per game.
“Jordan was our first commitment,” said Pennell. “He’s a quick point guard with a lot of range on his jump shot. And he has great leadership skills. I’ve known Jordan for years and we’re really blessed to get him. And the thing I probably like most about Jordan is his intelligence. He’s a 4.3 student in all honors classes. So he’s going to be a valuable asset to UCA, not only on the floor, but off the floor. We couldn’t be more thrilled to have Jordan come and run our team for the next four years.”
Iyekekpolor, a 6-8, 220-pound combo forward from the Democratic Republic of Congo, played for Lillian Osborne High School in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As a senior, he averaged 28 points, 17 rebounds and 3 assists per game.
“We were blessed to find out about Otas right after I took the job,” said Pennell. “I think he will be one of the better players to possibly play at UCA, which is saying a lot because there have been a lot of good players here. I think as a freshman he has a chance to come in and make an impact.
“The thing I like the most about Otas is, right after he committed, he started researching the people that we were recruiting by twitter, by facebook, instagram, whatever else ... And he was just so dynamic in his approach to reaching out to these guys, I think he was huge in our recruiting. So I think he’s going to be a real ambassador and someone our fans are really going to love because he’s a really charismatic young man.”
Milligan, a 6-6, 195-pounder, played at Future College Prep where he averaged 17 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a senior. His father, Michael Milligan Sr., played at Florida and Tennessee State and Mike Milligan was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1983 NBA draft.
“Michael is a 6-6 wing with what we call in college basketball, a great motor,” Pennell said. “He plays hard with a lot of effort. And he’s got a great blend for us in that he can play inside and outside. His ability to get to the rim puts pressure on opponents to stay in front of him, and he draws a lot of fouls in doing that. Yet if you back off, he has a really nice mid-range game. I love his athleticism and just his charisma as much as anything else.”
Martin (6-0, 190) is a combo guard from Wichita, Kan., who played at Coffeyville CC, where he averaged 10 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, shot 41.1 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the line. He was the team’s leader in assists (97) and steals (52). Martin was an honorable mention 2014 Jayhawk East All-Conference selection for the Red Ravens, who finished 23-9 overall last season and went 55-12 the past two years.
“Michael is just one of those good all-around players,” Pennell said. “He shoots the ball well, he can play either guard spot. Obviously he will step in next year and help us immediately. And the thing I like about Mikc is he’s a winner, he really cares about winning more than stats and everything else.”
Unruh is a 6-5, 190-pound shooting guard who played at Quakerdale Prep in New Providence, Iowa. He played previously at Branson (Mo.) High School where he averaged 20 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists during his senior year.
“Thatch is an incredible shooter with range,” said Pennell. “He comes to us with really the skill set we’re looking for in our offense. He can stretch the defense with his long-range shots, yet his skill level allows him to make some plays on his own. I think Thatch will be a guy the opponents really have to key on.”
Foreman, a 6-6, 210-pound forward from Bellaire, Texas, played in 23 games at GCU last season, averaging 5.2 points and 2.6 rebounds and making 14 three-pointers. Foreman played in 30 games as a freshman, starting 20, and averaged 7.5 points and 2.9 rebounds and making 20 threes. Foreman played at Westbury Christian and was a national honor society student and honor graduate.
“He is an energy guy,” said Pennell. “There will be no one on our team more competitive than Justin Foreman. And I think in the year he has to redshirt, he will help set and change the culture at UCA. That’s what I’m looking forward to, his leadership in practice.
The other GCU transfer is Jeff Lowery, a 6-2, 200-pound point guard from Phoenix. He played in four games last season for the Antelopes after playing in 31 games for a 23-8 team in 2012-13.
“Jeff is a kid I’ve known since the seventh grade,” said Pennell. “Jeff is probably one of the better athletes on the team. He will definitely be the fastest guy on the team. He’s a 6-2 very strong point guard. We’ll have to wait on him a year, but he’s another guy I think the fans will love to watch. One of the best on-ball defenders defensively that I’ve ever coached. He’ll be a real spearhead to our defensive attack.”
Brooks is a 6-5, 190-pound combo guard from Mesa, Ariz. (Desert Ridge HS), who averaged 16.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game and started 34 of 35 games for a national championship team at Phoenix College.
“He has incredible range on his jump shot,” said Pennell. “Derreck is a gifted athlete who plays a little bit bigger than he is. He’s going to be a very, very good player for us, and we’re counting on him to come in an play the off guard spot or the small forward position. I couldn’t be more pleased to have Derreck come join us.
Also transferring from Phoenix College is Fiegler, a 6-10, 200-pound forward from Las Vegas. Fiegler started 30 of 36 games for the Bears, shooting 63.2 percent from the field and averaging 6.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
“Joel is one of these guys that is a late bloomer,” said Pennell. “He’s 6-10, he’s a little bit thin, but he’s getting in the weight room. The thing I like about Joel is his lack of bulk doesn’t seem to affect him on the court. He gets the job done. And he can really run, which I love in big guys, that they can get up and down the floor. He’s going to give us a nice option because of his size. The other thing I love about Joel is his ability to block shots. He’s really long and he can defend the rim.”