CAC men unfazed by projected 10th-place finish in ACCAC
By ED PETRUSKA Contributing Writer Oct 30, 2019 Updated Oct 31, 2019
SIGNAL PEAK — A projected 10th-place finish in the 12-team Arizona Community College Athletic Conference doesn't bother sixth-year Central Arizona men's basketball coach Tramaine Aaron in the least.
"We're motivated," Aaron said. "We've got a great chance to prove everybody (meaning his fellow ACCAC coaches) wrong."
The Vaqueros struggled with inconsistency last season, going 10-20 overall and 8-14 in league play. They finished last among the ACCAC's five Division I teams by a three-game margin.
Heading into the 2019-20 opener against Salt Lake (Utah) on Nov. 2 at the George Young Activity Center, Aaron believes he and assistant coach Brandon McGruder will have a much more focused squad.
"I like the fact that they're understanding what we're teaching," Aaron said. "I think we'll get better as the season goes on. Last year's group kept making the same mistakes over and over. They stagnated and couldn't get over that hump."
Guard JC Canahuate leads the list of Central's three returners. He averaged 10.2 points, 3.2 assists and 2.2 rebounds last season. Also back are 6-foot-9 forward Abdoul Ndao (1.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in 14 games) and Vista Grande High School product Jeremy Zepeda, a guard who made five appearances.
The rotation also will include 6-5 freshman guard/forward DJ Hawkins, freshman guard Jalen Menzies, 6-7 freshman forward Alan Tchatchouang and 6-7 freshman forward Keivon Robinson.
Rounding out the roster are 6-9 sophomore forward Rajae Calbert along with freshmen guards Catch Robles, Mycole Rodriguez and Ryan Pate.
Following the opener against Salt Lake, which went 20-9 last season and is ranked No. 13 in the D-I NJCAA preseason poll, Central faces three non-NJCAA opponents at home (Fast Break Prep on Nov. 5, Planet Athlete on Nov. 8 and Park University's junior varsity Nov. 15) before starting ACCAC play at Arizona Western on Nov. 20.
Western (25-9, 16-6 ACCAC) defeated defending conference champ Cochise (26-5, 20-2) in last season's D-I Region 1 title game and advanced to the NJCAA Tournament by beating Snow (Utah) in the District 1 final. As the No. 16 seed in the 24-team national tourney, the Matadors were eliminated with a first-round loss to 17th-seeded Cape Fear (North Carolina).
Eastern Arizona (19-12, 11-11) and Mesa (15-15, 11-11) both lost in the first round of the D-I region tournament.
Pima (29-7) went 3-0 in the consolation bracket at the D-II nationals after losing in the first round. Scottsdale (20-12), Chandler-Gilbert (17-14) and Glendale (16-14) were the ACCAC's other D-II teams that had overall winning records.
"Our league is going to be competitive," Aaron said. "Anybody can beat anybody on any given night."
The top returners in the conference are NJCAA All-America second-team guard Chris Whitaker of Cochise and All-America third-team forward James Burns of Eastern. Whitaker averaged 19.5 points to rank third in the ACCAC. Burns averaged 18.1 points and 7.6 rebounds.
If the Vaqueros "listen and do what we ask – trust the coaches and trust each other – we'll be in a lot of games," Aaron said. "There's a lot of fight in this group. I think this team will play hard and leave it all out on the floor."