Forrest First Four

Justin Forrest (1) of the Mountaineers drives to the basket against Devante Carter (14) of the Norfolk State Spartans in the First Four round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament on March 18.

BOONE — After a strong run saw them capture a Sun Belt Conference title and land a berth in the NCAA Tournament last season, this year’s Appalachian State men’s basketball team is looking to run it back and build on their accomplishments.

Thanks to an extra year of eligibility from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mountaineers were able to bring back veteran guards Justin Forrest — who was named a preseason all-conference first team selection — and Sun Belt Tournament MVP Michael Almonacy. The duo combined for 25.9 points per game in 2020-21.

Both guards said the run to the tournament played a major role in their decision to come back for another year. The run gave more recognition for the program, with head coach Dustin Kerns noting that it helps to boost the program’s profile. Forrest said other teams cannot ignore the Mountaineers.

“I think we definitely did put a lot of people on notice,” Forrest said at the team’s media day on Oct. 18. “We have a really good team and really good coaches that put us in positions to showcase our talents, how great we are as a team.”

Despite being the reigning champions, the Mountaineers came in fourth in the conference preseason coaches’ poll, but earned two first-place votes along the way.

“Obviously, expectations are good, you never want expectations to be low,” Kerns said. “I tell out guys, ‘you can’t repeat anything if you try to recreate stuff.’ But, we can recreate the harmony and the chemistry through committing ourselves to the values and standards of our program.”

Kerns said the plan throughout the offseason was for the team to not rest on their laurels and continue to build. This has come in the form of quality depth players like Sasha Glushkov and Xavion Brown continuing in their development while the program itself tries to continue its upward trajectory.

“We can’t be playing Almonacy, Forrest and Delph 37-38 minutes, we have to have a deeper team,” Kerns said.

Toward the end of last season and in the immediate aftermath, Kerns stressed that he wanted to see a packed house for home games after COVID-19 restrictions limited them to under 100 spectators in 2020-21.

“It’s a big part of our growth,” Kerns said. “Our football team is an elite power because we have an elite atmosphere … Every major program in the country has an elite homecourt advantage.”

On the court, both Forrest and Almonacy preached “consistency” as the main thing the team had to work on this offseason.

“We weren’t perfect last year, we had a lot of stuff we needed to work on,” Almonacy said. “Our defense needed to get better, we have to be more consistent on offense. Our main focus was just getting better at everything this summer.”

The Mountaineers kick their season off on the road against Iona on Nov. 9, with their first game back at the Holmes Convocation Center against ETSU on Nov. 12. Their non-conference schedule will include a trip to the Estero, Fl., for the Gulf Coast Showcase tournament along with away games against in-state titans Duke and North Carolina.

Their quest to retain their Sun Belt title begins when conference play opens on Dec. 30 at home against Louisiana.

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