Appalachian State adjusting under new basketball coach Dustin Kerns

First-year Appalachian State coach Dustin Kerns is looking to get the Mountaineers back to a winning record for the first time in nearly a decade. (Carlos Osorio / AP Photo)

It wouldn’t have been the most stunning upset Appalachian State has ever pulled off at Michigan.

That honor belongs to the Mountaineers football team in 2007.

But it still would have been notable had App State’s basketball team been able to complete its stunning comeback from a 30-point second half deficit and spoil the debut of new Wolverines coach Juwan Howard.

The Mountaineers got as close as three before falling 79-71. But even in defeat, the opening game performance and the resiliency it showed last Tuesday bodes well for their own first-year coach, Dustin Kerns, as the 2019-20 season progresses.

Kerns, a former Clemson player who spent the past two seasons at Presbyterian, inherits a team with four returning starters and seven veterans in all, although the new coach acknowledged that “four starters from an 11-win team doesn’t mean anything.”

App State did go 11-21 a year ago for its eighth straight losing season and was picked to finish ninth in the 12-team Sun Belt Conference. But even with that history to overcome, Kerns acknowledges that there’s still plenty to work within the veteran nucleus of his team.

“We’ve got some guys that really have a high basketball IQ,” Kerns said. “The way they absorb things, have picked up on things has been very good and quick. But we’re still trying to build habits and getting guys to play with one another.”

Their first major bonding experience came in the second half in Ann Arbor. After falling behind 67-37 with 12:59 remaining, the Mountaineers outscored Michigan 32-6 to get back into contention.

The charge was led by 6-foot-2 senior guard Justin Forrest, a preseason second-team All-Sun Belt selection who scored 18 of his game-high 27 points in the second half.

Forrest, who ranked second on the team in scoring last year at 16.2 points per game while leading in steals with 37, followed his big game at Michigan with a 17-point performance against Division III Ferrum last weekend.

The Mountaineers topped East Carolina 68-62 on Tuesday.

Although 6-foot-9 senior Isaac Johnson, a third-team preseason all-conference pick, is off to a strong start after averaging 12 points and eight rebounds a year ago, the foundation upon which Kerns is building his first Mountaineer squad is a backcourt that also includes returning starter sophomore Adrian Delph, a 6-3 sophomore, and 6-3 redshirt junior Michael Bibby — the son of the former Arizona and NBA star of the same name.

“I think a strength of ours is (that we have) bigger guards that can attack the rim and get to the free-throw line and find ways to score that way,” Kerns said. “Especially with the 3-point line moving back, even though it’s a little bit. Our team has heard me say this a lot — our defense has to dictate our offense.”

That commitment to becoming a more aggressive and efficient defensive team is job one for Kerns after last year’s team allowed an average of 79.3 points per game. That figure ranked next-to-last in the Sun Belt in 2018-19, ahead of only Louisiana-Lafayette at 80.5 points per game and ranked App State 333rd among the nation’s 354 Division I teams.

But while changes in the way the Mountaineers do things were necessary, Kerns said that the adjustments haven’t been as major as he thought they might be because of the personnel with which he has to work.

“I’m always going to be married to my players and not my system,” the new coach said. “Fortunately, we are able to get some guys returning that fit what we want to do anyway.”

Besides Forrest, Johnson and Delph, the fourth returning starter is 6-9 senior center Hunter Seacat, who shot 55.9 percent from the floor last season. The other returning players are 5-11 senior guard O’Showen Williams (3.8 ppg in 2018-19) and redshirt sophomore James Lewis Jr., a transfer from Chattanooga who sat out last season under NCAA rules.

The top newcomer is 6-5 freshman wing Donovan Gregory, who posted 10 points and eight rebounds in App State’s 83-56 win against Ferrum. The rest of the freshman class consists of 6-7 forward Kendall Lewis, 6-1 guard J.C. Tharrington and 6-6 forward R.J. Wilson.