Early in the 2023-24 season, the University of Alaska Anchorage men’s basketball team is off to its hottest start in recent history with a 6-0 record.
The Seawolves have received contributions from numerous players, but senior guard Tyson Gilbert has been a major catalyst for their success.
“At the end of the day, I’m really just blessed to be in this situation and blessed to be here,” Gilbert said. “I give God all the glory and it’s cool having a group of guys and coaching staff who put trust in me, and that always feels good.”
He is the team’s leading scorer through six games with an average of 15.7 points per game, and has reached double figures in all but one game.
“Tyson has really carried us at the beginning part of the season and now we’re getting efforts from everybody,” UAA head coach Rusty Osborne said.
Three years ago, Gilbert’s basketball career nearly came to an end before he could even suit up for the green and gold, when he discovered he had a congenital heart defect that required open-heart surgery if he wished to continue competing.
After recovering from that setback, he suffered another in the form of a torn Achilles tendon that cost him another season. He made his long-awaited return to the court last season. He started 21-of-27 games and finished as the Seawolves’ leading scorer with 280 points.
Gilbert didn’t just pick up where he left off, he has built upon that success and is playing at an even higher level.
“As good of a player as he is, he is an even better individual with the adversity that he fought through with his open heart surgery and torn Achilles,” Osborne said. “I’m just so excited that he is having success.”
Gilbert is more excited about the overall team success during its undefeated start to the season than he is about his own impressive numbers. He hopes they can “keep that rolling” heading into conference play in a few weeks.
“Personal stats don’t mean a whole lot to me as long as the team is doing well, we’re getting wins and being successful,” he said.
Although Gilbert is leading the way, he said the Seawolves are thriving collectively because of their “win-games-by-committee” approach.
“It’s not going to be one person doing everything offensively, and we have faith and trust in everybody,” Gilbert said. “I think we have multiple dudes who can pop off and have big nights.”
The biggest aspect of his game that he emphasized improving in the offseason is being able to confidently and consistently get better at shooting from the field.
“I just focused on not really being a shot-taker but a shot-maker,” Gilbert said. “That was one thing that I really honed in on and really getting healthy.”
He admitted the speed of the game kind of caught him by surprise last season in his first year back from his health-related setbacks.
“It’s crazy to say that because I had already played two years of college basketball, but things always change so the biggest thing was just getting in the gym and playing,” Gilbert said. “I played a lot of pickup games and just lived in the gym.”
Osborne agreed with his assessment that last year was more about knocking off rust than a reflection of what he is truly capable of when healthy.
“After not playing for so long, you just don’t have the rhythm,” he said. “But he continued to work hard and it’s paying off for him right now.”
The coaches love Gilbert’s competitive drive and his willingness to execute whatever is asked of him.
“He’s turning things down when he needs to and taking big shots when he needs to also,” Osborne said.
Assuming and embracing the mantle of leadership
Over this past spring and summer, the coaching staff “really challenged” Gilbert and the rest of the seniors to show a lot more leadership and thus far, they have answered the call.
“They are not natural guys that way,” Osborne said. “They’re all very friendly guys but when you’re a leader, sometimes you have to get on people, and they’re starting to find that voice and that fine line where you can get on people and still support them.”
During games and practice, Gilbert sometimes serves as an extension of the coaching staff on the court with the way he communicates, instructs and encourages his teammates.
“It feels good just having those guys trust in me to help them move around,” he said. “The other day in practice, coach (Osborne) was talking to one of our freshmen and joked ‘Yeah, Tyson, a lot of these guys haven’t been in college for five years like you have.’ ”
Since there isn’t a whole lot he and his fellow upperclassmen haven’t seen or experienced at this level, they enjoy passing on knowledge and tricks of the trade to younger teammates.
“It’s easy to get excited about these young guys, because they do a great job every day in practice, and they’re really unselfish dudes,” Gilbert said.
The Seawolves have confidence in their depth this year, and with conference play just a few weeks away, they aim to keep building on their success and continue refining their identity on both ends of the floor.
“We have a lot of guys that we can trust to throw out there and we all know that everybody is going to do the right thing,” Gilbert said. “The biggest thing is having trust defensively and flying around.”