ST. GEORGE — Jon Judkins always wanted to be a Division I coach. He said when he joined Dixie State University in 2005, he couldn’t have imagined his dream would come true while working there.
However, after 15 years, seven conference championships, nine NCAA Tournament appearances, more than 500 wins and a pandemic that still threatens to upend the season, Judkins will lead his team into competition in collegiate basketball’s highest level in Wednesday’s season opener against North Dakota, the program’s first official game as a member of the Western Athletic Conference.
“I’ve always wanted to coach Division I,” Judkins said. “I’ve always wanted to look at that, but I just never thought it would be as fast as Dixie State doing it as well. That’s pretty cool.”
Judkins’ roster returns four starters and five more letterwinners. The only starter lost is guard Jack Pagenkopf, who was in his senior year of eligibility last season when he won the 2019-2020 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Player of the Year award and was named first team all-South Central Region by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
So the loss of Pagenkopf is a substantial one, but even he was part of a system that was focused more on the whole than the individual: he ranked second on the team with 15.1 points per game in conference play but led the RMAC with 6.0 assists per game. Dixie had three players average more than 10 points a game last season as it clinched the RMAC conference regular season title before falling in the semifinals to wrap up its Division II era.
This year’s team will be just as reliant on sharing the ball and the points on the scoresheet, something that Judkins said his team will have to do if it wants to keep up with teams that will be made up of larger players, especially in the post.
“It’s the fives that I see that are just bigger, stronger, powerful,” he said, noting that the center position is where he sees the biggest difference between Division I and Division II. “For us, what we don’t want to do is get into a half-court game with them, because then the size is going to affect us. So we want to get out and run.”
Judkins said the DSU team is going to be a smaller team than most of the teams they will play.
“So we’re going to push it and try to get in a track meet with a lot of teams and try to use our quickness,” he said. “We want to run-and-gun a little bit.”
He said his biggest counter to the physicality will be 6-foot-11-inch redshirt sophomore forward Mikey Frazier, a transfer from Garden City Community College who sat out his redshirt freshman season at Idaho State in 2018-19. In 19 games last season, the Salt Lake City native averaged 14.2 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Senior forward Jarod Greene will also help in size, adding his 6-foot-9-inch 255 pound frame. Jacob Nicolds also impressed toward the end of last season in the frontcourt, starting the last five games of the season and leading the team with a 55% success rate from the 3-point line.
The offense will still mostly pass through senior Hunter Schofield, who ranked seventh in the RMAC and led the Trailblazers with 16.8 points per game. He was named to the preseason All-WAC second team by both coaches and the media.
Complementing Schofield will be sophomore Dason Youngblood, who will see a share of time at both shooting guard and point guard after reaching double-digit points in 14 of his 30 games last season. Youngblood will likely be joined in the backcourt by sophomore hybrid Frank Staine, who shot 44.9% from the perimeter and ranked fourth on the team with 8.8 points per game as a freshman.
Judkins said he has some transfers in redshirt freshman Trevon Allfrey and sophomore guard Isaiah Pope. Both players have to receive transfer waivers before they start, so he’s “not counting on them” but thinks they can be contributors if they become eligible. He also highlighted junior guard Cameron Gooden, who averaged 14.9 points for Kilgore College, a community college in Texas, and is available to play immediately.
Two key freshmen include guards Emad Elniel and Andre Mulibea. Elniel, who was born in Denver but raised in Phoenix, averaged 21.8 points and was .2 rebounds per game shy of a double-double rate per game as he became Independence High School’s all-time scoring leader. Mulibea, a East High School product out of Salt Lake City, was a regional 5A first team All-State honoree last season.
The roster also features two Region 9 freshman: Mason Chase out of Desert Hills and Noah Lemke out of Dixie.
DSU’s schedule was pieced together through the obstacles of being the new team and dealing with the issues of COVID-19.
“When we started the schedule, everyone wants to play the new kid on the block,” Judkins said. “They think we’re not going to be very good. So we had no problems with the scheduling at all. The only problem we had was trying to schedule home games.”
The Trailblazers will start by hosting North Dakota and Saint Katherine, from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Then the team hits the road for four of their next five games. They will play at Denver, Utah State and Southern Utah before hosting Division II SAGU American Indian. Then they head to Spokane to take on the perennial contender Gonzaga, ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press’s preseason poll and second in the coaches’ poll in all of Division I college basketball.
They return home to conclude their preseason schedule against small Bethesda before beginning their first WAC conference schedule, when they will be thrown right into the deep end, hosting New Mexico State, the favorite to win the conference regular season and the holder of eight of the last 10 WAC Tournament titles.
The WAC schedule alternates home and road series, with each series including two games on a Friday and Saturday. Other home opponents include Grand Canyon, Seattle and Tarleton State in conference play.
Their conference schedule almost exactly follows the preseason media poll in descending order, starting with No. 1 New Mexico State and concluding at No. 9 Chicago State. The only deviation from the poll is that Dixie takes on No. 3 ranked University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, Texas, before hosting No. 2 Grand Canyon on Jan. 22.
Dixie was selected No. 8 in the coaches’ poll and No. 7 in the media poll, with expectations low for the newcomers.
“I promise you this, our guys will compete,” Judkins said. “We know coming in, we’re going to be underdogs every game we play. But we want to win every game – that’s the idea of it. We’re going to do our best and compete, and we’ll see where it goes.”
Dixie State is not yet eligible to compete in either the WAC or NCAA tournaments due to a four-year probationary period rule for new schools in Division I. The best the Trailblazers can hope for is the still lofty goal of conference champion, but that is where they have set their goals.
The Trailblazers were slated to play Weber State last Saturday, but the Wildcats had to cancel due to a positive COVID-19 test. So DSU will instead open against North Dakota at Burns Arena in the schools’ first meeting as Division I colleagues. It will be DSU’s first event in Division I, other than a swim meet with BYU.
Tip-off is at 7 p.m. There will be up to 1,000 fans in attendance, but no outside tickets will be sold, as previously reported by St. George News. Those who can’t attend can stream the game online.
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