VUU has restocked its hoops roster for new season

Fred Jeter | 11/2/2023, 6 p.m.
“Starting over” might be the theme for this season’s Virginia Union University’s basketball Panthers.

“Starting over” might be the theme for this season’s Virginia Union University’s basketball Panthers.

Only two players return from last year’s 24-8 squad that went to the second round of the NCAA

Division II tournament. The lone returnees are junior Tahj Harding (eight starts last year) and sophomore Michael Harrell.

Still, Coach Jay Butler hasn’t brought out the crying towel. Thanks to the transfer portal, Coach Butler has compiled a 19-man roster at Barco-Stevens Hall.

“We’ve got the talent. It’s just a matter of putting it all together,” he said.

The rebuilding project may not take as long as skeptics might think.

In a preseason scrimmage, VUU scored a one-point win over Division I Maryland-Eastern Shore in Princess Anne, Md. UMES went to the MEAC tournament finals a year ago.

The first official tests come this weekend in the Small College Hall of Fame Classic at Florida Southern in Lakeland.

VUU will play host Southern at 5:45 p.m. Saturday and then Emporia State, Kan., at 8 p.m. Sunday.

Coach Butler plans to use many combinations this season but pressed for a “starting five” right now, here is his likely opening night lineup:

Harding: The 6-foot-5 guard from Ohio was the fourth leading scorer a year ago, averaging 6.2 points.

“Tahj is coming into his own,” Coach Butler said.

Jonathan Salazar: The 6-foot-6, 240-pound post player is a native of Panama and a transfer from Pacific University, Cal.

“We hope Jonathan is our Robbie (Osborne) clone,” Coach Butler said. “He has a lot of physical toughness.

Jakobe Williams: From Jacksonville, Fla., the 6-foot-3 guard transferred from Paine College, Ga., where he averaged 15 points per.

Josiah Freeman: Following an outstanding career at Manassas Park High, Va., the 6-foot-3 junior transferred to VUU from Western Michigan.

“Josiah shot the ball really well at UMES,” Coach Butler said.

Jonathan King: VUU got a break when Alderson Broaddus, W. Va., went out of business.

A 6-foot-6 junior from Akron, King averaged 12 points and six boards in the Division II school’s final season of play.

A local addition also is a towering addition, 7-foot-1 Eric Rustin from Huguenot High by way of Tennessee-Martin. Rustin sat out of basketball last season for medical reasons.

“Eric is coming on,” Coach Butler said. “He can be our rim protector. His skill level is starting to catch up with his body.”

No matter how talented the newcomers may be, they’ll have a hard time matching the four starters lost from a year ago.

Previously mentioned Robert Osborne (CIAA Player of Year), CIAA rebounding leader Raemaad Wright and Keleaf Tate (67 three-pointers) combined for 43 points and 22 rebounds per outing.

Also, defensive minded Charles Tart has transferred to Ferrum College.

The new-look Panthers will have to learn on the fly away from home. After Florida, VUU will travel to Millersville, Pa., (two games) Uncasville, Conn., (two games) and Shepherd, W.Va., before the home opener Nov. 25 against Fayetteville.