Morris Wright-led Xavier men No. 19 in NAIA preseason poll _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Xavier's Morris Wright and Dillard's Jordan Kilson battle for the ball during the second half Saturday, March 1, 2014, at Dillard.

Xavier point guard Morris Wright vividly remembers his reaction when told he was the MVP of the preseason All-Gulf Coast Athletic Conference team selected by the coaches.

“To be honest, I was shocked!” said Wright, a 5-foot-10 senior point guard from Zachary.

Xavier, which tips off its season Thursday vs. Webber International at home, is No. 19 in the NAIA preseason poll released Tuesday. The Gold Rush was picked to finish third in the GCAC, behind two-time defending champion Talladega (No. 3) and Philander Smith (No. 20). Wright was All-GCAC the past two seasons, including first team last season when he finished second in 3-point percentage and third in steals.

“He’s solid all-around,” Talladega coach Matt Cross said. “He has the grit and determination to will his team to wins. He can get into the lane and finish strong and he can hit big shots.”

Wright averaged 13.5 points and had 93 assists in 31 games as a sophomore with Xavier in 2013-14. Last season in 34 games, he averaged 14.9 points and his assists jumped to 127, as the Rush went 24-10, including 11-3 in conference.

Forward Jarvis Thibodeaux, who led the Rush in rebounding (5.6) last season, and guard Lucas Julien-Martin, who redshirted last season after having an Achilles injury as a freshman, return as starters. Guard/forward R.J. Daniels, senior point guard Gary Smith and forward Wesley Pluviose-Philip also are key players back.

However, Elex Carter, a 6-7 transfer from Southern, and freshman Leland Alexander give the team added length and athleticism, Coach Dannton Jackson said.

“We have some guys who like to get up and down the court; I like that,” Wright said. “We have seven new guys. My leadership has to go up this season.”

Dillard

After 10 losing seasons, a new era begins with coach Mike Newell when the Bleu Devils play at Huston-Tillotson on Friday.

Newell, a fomer head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock and Lamar, brought back just two players from last year’s team — guard Houston Chatman, the team’s leading scorer, and Patrick Thompson, the GCAC’s freshman of the year last season.

Ramon Johnson of Newark, New Jersey, and Julien Tillman-Green of New Orleans, both 6-9, were brought in among 10 junior-college transfers. Newell is high on Dennis Hightower, a 6-foot point guard from Chicago, and 6-7 Demetic Austin, a high-scoring forward from Washington.

Dillard (5-25, 3-11), seventh last season, is picked to finish fifth in the GCAC.

Loyola

The Wolfpack, a senior-laden team strong on 3-point shooting last season, has eight new players, including six freshmen.

Loyola (14-13, 8-10), sixth in the 12-team Southern States Athletic Conference last season, is tabbed for a sixth-lace finish.

The Wolfpack lost four starters. Coach Stacy Hollowell said the play of point guards Jalen Gray, a junior, and Nick Parker, a sophomore, will be important

“We’re taller and more athletic, and I think we’ll be able to shoot and get up and down the floor,” Hollowell said. “If we can control the boards, I think we’ll be pretty solid in our league.”

A lot of that will fall on junior center 6-8 Nate Pierre. Johnny Griffin Jr., a 6-5 junior guard/forward, is one of the more athletic players in the conference.

Southern-New Orleans

After suffering through a 4-23 (1-13 GCAC) season, Coach Dale Valdery brought in nine new players.

One of the holdovers is 6-8 senior center Joe Brown, who was slected to the preseason All-GCAC team. A sports hernia injury knocked out Brown the first half the season.

Transfers Dominique Suggs, a 6-5 guard/forward, 6-7 Talonzo Edwards,and 6-5 forward Contavious Willilams, are expected to help Brown.