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2011-12 Men's Basketball Outlook: Post Players
The following article is the final installment of the four-part men's basketball preview. Today's article looks at the Flames' big men. Liberty opens the 2011-12 season tomorrow night at No. 19 Texas A&M. Tip-off between the Flames and the Aggies is slated for 8 p.m. (EST).
The absence of a permanent starter at the five spot became a recurring theme during the first half of the 2010-11 season. However, in the latter half of the campaign, redshirt sophomore Joel Vander Pol filled the position, displaying a significant upside as the Flames' big man.
While the 2009-10 season was a learning year for Vander Pol, the 6-10 center was finally able to put his knowledge and skills to the test this past season. After averaging 4.1 points and 3.2 boards per game along with 21 blocks on the season, Vander Pol returns looking to add to the solid start he had in his first active season with the program.
"Joel had a very good redshirt freshman season," Layer noted. "I think the sky is the limit for him. He works hard and has a desire to be a really good player. That's hard to find in a lot of 6-10 guys. Joel continues to get stronger, continues to improve and I really like the future for him."
When Vander Pol was not lining up at the five spot last season, it was Antwan Burrus. The Winterville, N.C., native was the team's leader in blocked shots with 40 (fifth in the Big South). In addition to his swats, Burrus was also No. 5 on the Flames in scoring (6.5 ppg) and third in rebounding (4.2 rpg). During his sophomore campaign, he developed a knack for grabbing offensive boards, finishing 10th in the conference with 2.3 offensive rebounds per game.
"Antwan has improved his outside shooting and has had two really good years here," Layer noted.
"There have been times where he has been unstoppable and times where he has not played as well as I would have liked him to. But generally he has had two really fine years. We are expecting him to build upon that success and move forward."
Sophomore Sommy Ogukwe provides a solid third option at center. Last season, Ogukwe appeared in all 32 contests for Liberty, receiving the starting nod in games against Notre Dame and UNC Wilmington.
Ogukwe concluded the season second on the team with 22 blocked shots. Unfortunately for the Flames, they will be without Ogukwe this season after the Abuja, Nigeria native suffered a season-ending injury.
"This is a tough blow in many ways," Layer stated. "Sommy had been playing the best he has in his career. We will miss him sorely on the floor. He has a great spirit and will handle this the right way in turning this into a positive. Our support and prayers go with him."
Three freshmen are likely to see playing time at the power forward position this season – Stephen Baird, Tomasz Gielo and Andrew Smith.
Baird, who was heavily recruited coming out of high school, will suit up for the Flames after missing the entire 2010-11 season due to injury.
"Stephen is coming off major knee surgery," Layer said. "He is incredibly skilled. I think he's hungrier now than he has ever been. He needs to continue to get stronger and get back in the flow to compete at this kind of level. He certainly has the skill to do just that and we're expecting him to really help our team."
Gielo, a 6-8 forward from Szczecin, Poland, recently completed his senior season at SMS Cetniewo Sports Academy, averaging 13.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. During his junior year, Gielo was a member of the U-17 Polish national team, competing in the FIBA 2010 U-17 World Championships in Hamburg, Germany. Gielo concluded the tournament as Poland's third leading scorer with 13.8 points per game. He was also second on the team in rebounding with 6.6 boards per game, dished out 2.4 assists and posted 1.4 blocks per contest.
"Tomasz is a very skilled big man. He has the size, athletic ability and skill level to play up to three different positions," Layer said. "He played for the Polish national team this past summer. I'm anxious to see how quickly he adjusts to the American game because once he does, I think he will help our team in a lot of ways."
Smith, who signed with Liberty in 2010 during the early signing period, capped off his final season at Highland Christian averaging 25.0 points, 9.5 boards, 3.4 blocks and 3.3 assists per game. A native of Pompano Beach, Fla., Smith finished his high school career with first team all-county and all-state honors.
"Andrew is an active, energetic, tough big guy who can play two different positions," Layer said. "He has an ability to shoot the ball and dribble it. He has really quick feet and has a chance to have a really good career here."