A blend of experienced upperclassmen and exciting newcomers make up a talented Cougar squad. 

After a 22-8 record and a conference tournament championship appearance last season, there is plenty to be excited about for the Azusa Pacific University men’s basketball team this year. The Cougars are primed to be in a position to compete amongst the top of the PacWest Conference once again in the 2023-24 season. 

As with most successful college basketball programs, experience and veteran leadership will be crucial for the Cougars. Entering this season, APU brings back four seniors and a redshirt junior, all of whom made significant contributions last season. Head coach Peter Bond explained just how crucial this leadership is. 

“There’s something special about having a number of guys that have been here for five years,” Bond said. “This group, we’ve got three guys that were on the first team I got to be the head coach for, who were freshman and getting to learn and getting to kind of experience that. Now to have it come completely full circle five years later, and they’re now the leaders and have grown up and matured and I look back at pictures and stuff, and it’s amazing how fast it’s gone and how far they’ve come.”

Senior forward Ken West returns as the Cougars’ leading scorer, while redshirt junior forward Nate Kleppe also comes back as the team’s top rebounder from last season. Meanwhile, seniors Bryce Sloan and George Reidy bring depth and experience to the backcourt this season. 

Despite losing guards Hayden Gray and McKelary Robertson to the transfer portal this offseason, the Cougars have plenty to be excited about at the guard spots with freshmen guards Khristian and Nashawn Holmes. Bond and the Cougars’ coaching staff are excited about bringing in two young point guards. 

“With Bryce having a lot of experience and being able to kind of bring them under his wing, that’s going to be just as good of learning from him and as from the coaches. So mixing that’s exciting. They’re both able to play on the ball, off the ball, they both attack the rim well (and) they shoot it well,” Bond said. 

In addition to their skillset, Bond was equally excited about their competitive spirit as freshmen. 

“This is one of the things I love about them: they’re both fearless. They stepped in the first day of practice, and normally most freshmen kind of just dip their toe in the water, and they just jumped right in and went for it and I love that,” he said.

APU took advantage of the transfer portal this offseason adding redshirt sophomore forward Ethan Speaker from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Speaker, a 6 ‘7”, 210 pound forward can expect to be a physical contributor on both ends of the floor this season. 

“We’re really excited about him,” Bond said. “He fits the style of play we generally play, he’s versatile, he can guard multiple positions, (and) do different things offensively. It’s kinda just getting him used to having the freedom to play his game and do what he does well. But he’s going to be a big addition for us.” 

The Cougars can also expect to see contributions from other young players like redshirt freshmen Michael Saba and Josh Hardeman. After redshirting last season, Bond praised the two for their growth and maturity this past year. 

“You can already tell at this time in year two, they have a much better understanding of what it takes to be a college basketball player, to be part of a successful program. To the work ethic, the mental side of things that has to go into it, that’s been a big area of growth for both of them,” he said. 

Physicality is an area that was a concern for the Cougars at times last season. However, Bond and the coaching staff noted that it should be an area of improvement for the Cougars with the addition of Speaker and the return of senior forward Allan McBride. 

“We will be more physical just across the board. We’ve got more size, bringing Ethan in and having Allan back kind of full, he missed a good chunk of last year, [so] we’re going to be more physical. I think that’s an area this year our team can lean on a little bit more,” said Bond. 

Not only did the Cougars bring in new faces on the court, but on the coaching staff as well. Former assistant coach BJ Porter’s decision to join the University of Denver coaching staff left an opening to be filled in Azusa. The Cougars recently announced the hiring of assistant coach Tim Anderson. 

“I’m super thankful for BJ Porter and what he meant to me and the program and how hard he worked and I’m excited for his new opportunity. With Tim [Anderson], it was a long process in terms of getting somebody finally hired and all that. I love the variety of experience he brings. I’ve already got the chance to bounce ideas off him, [for] him [to] throw things my way and so I think he’s gonna be a good addition for us,” Bond said. 

The Cougars officially start their season on the road on Nov. 10 in a meeting with Chico State. However, the season truly kicks off Friday, Oct. 27 at Midnight Madness in the Felix Event Center.