2023-24 North Carolina Sports Network
NC Basketball Spotlight, 10-Year Snapshot:
Western Carolina

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

School: Western Carolina

Location: Cullowhee, N.C.

NCAA DI Member Since: 1976-77

Conference: Southern Conference (SoCon)

SoCon Member Since: 1976-77

SoCon Ranking Among 32 Leagues (KenPom): 20th (2023), 12th (2022), 14th (2021), 15th (2020)

NCAA Tournament Bids: 1 (1996)

Conference Titles: 1 (1996)

Conference 1st-Place Finishes: none

Head Coach: Justin Gray (39 years old, 3rd season at WCU)

As A Player: Wake Forest (2002-06, 3-time All-ACC); 12-year pro career internationally

Record At WCU (Through Dec. 4): 37-39 (.489)  in 2+ seasons

Previous Head Coaching Experience: none

College AC Experience: Winthrop (2019-21)

Assistant Under: Pat Kelsey

2022-23 Record: 18-16, 10-8 (4th in 10-team SoCon)

2023-24 Preseason Prediction (Coaches): 3rd in 10-team SoCon

2023-24 Record (Through Dec. 4): 8-2, 0-0 SoCon

2023-24 Midseason Ranking (KenPom): #137 nationally (3rd in SoCon)

Upcoming Schedule Highlights: at Vanderbilt (12/19), Wofford (1/6)

SoCon Opener: at The Citadel (1/3)

Basketball fans in North Carolina are plenty familiar with Justin Gray.

The Western Carolina head coach was a prep star at West Charlotte High School (and later Oak Hill Academy in Virginia), and he was a three-time All-ACC player at Wake Forest before moving on to a 12-year professional playing career overseas.

Hired at WCU as a first-time head coach before the 2021-22 season, Gray has orchestrated an impressive turnaround in Cullowhee over the past two years, leading the Catamounts to a fourth-place Southern Conference finish (tied for fifth-best in program history) and just their fourth-ever postseason appearance during the 2022-23 season.

“Last year, we had enough talent to compete, and the results obviously improved from our first year,” Gray said. “Now we have talent again, and we’re trying to continue to build good habits with our discipline and consistency and the other important things that you must have to win those close games that could go either way.”

During Gray’s first season at WCU, he emphasized the acronym TJDK — They Just Don’t Know — while promising the Catamounts’ fan base that his teams would be better than expected and quickly challenge for postseason play. With those matters accomplished, Gray introduced a new acronym earlier this year, EDGE, which stands for his bedrock coaching principles of Energy, Discipline, Grit and Excellence.

Although 2023 third-team All-Southern Conference forward Tyzhaun Claude opted to transfer (Georgia Tech) after last season, the 2023-24 Catamounts returned a strong foundation this fall, led by second-team All-SoCon guards Tre Jackson and Vonterius Woolbright.

On the recruiting trail, Gray found much-needed frontcourt size in the form of 6-foot-11, 225-pound Charleston transfer (and former juco star) Charles Lampten and 6-foot-9, 205-pound LSU transfer (and former prep star) Corneilous Williams, among others.

Much like Western Carolina football coach Kerwin Bell, who has turned the Catamounts around on the gridiron over the past three years, Gray has a very specific type of player he seeks on the recruiting trail.

“We look for the guys that have a chip on their shoulder,” Gray said. “We look for the guys who are really, really hungry.”

Western Carolina’s impressive 8-2 start this season, built while often utilizing a four-guard lineup that offers excellent ball-handling and perimeter defense but is often vulnerable in the post, included eye-opening victories at Notre Dame (71-61) of the Atlantic Coast Conference and at home against McNeese State (76-74), which is expected to be among the best teams in the Southland Conference this season.

2023-24 Western Carolina Catamounts
(8-2, 0-0 SoCon; through Dec. 18)


G Vonterius Woolbright*, Sr. — 34 mpg, 22 ppg, 12 rpg, 49% FG, 68% FT, 30% threes, 52/32 ATO, 0 blocks, 2 steals
(6-6/215); 2023 2nd-team All-SoCon; NJCAA HM A-A at Lawson State CC; from Albany, Ga.
G Tre Jackson*, Sr. — 33 mpg, 12 ppg, 4 rpg, 35% FG, 75% FT, 33% threes, 18/16 ATO, 1 block, 11 steals
(6-1/175); 2023 2nd-team All-SoCon; 3-year contributor at Iowa State; Blythewood HS, Columbia, S.C.
G Russell Jones Jr.*, Sr. — 31 mpg, 11 ppg, 2 rpg, 42% FG, 75% FT, 42% threes, 11/5 ATO, 0 blocks, 7 steals
(5-8/175); 3-year contributor at Winthrop; from Westwood HS and Columbia, S.C.
G DJ Campbell, So. — 30 mpg, 12 ppg, 4 rpg, 56% FG, 63% FT, 35% threes, 18/15 ATO, 1 block, 6 steals
(6-2/205); part-time starter in 2022-23; from Kecoughtan HS in Hampton, Va.
F Charles Lampten, Gr. — 15 mpg, 3 ppg, 3 rpg, 67% FG, 100% FT (few), 5/4 ATO, 11 blocks, 4 steal
(6-11/225); 2023-24 newcomer; backup at College of Charleston, starred at Dawson CC

Key Reserves

G Kamar Robertson, Gr. — 16 mpg, 4 ppg, 2 rpg, 44% FG, 71% FT, 12% threes, 7/5 ATO, 1 block, 4 steals
(6-0/180); 2023-24 newcomer; four seasons at SoCon foe Mercer; part-time starter in 2022-23
F Bernard Pelote, r-Jr. — 22 mpg, 7 ppg, 4 rpg, 52% FG, 0% FT (few), 38% threes, 4/7 ATO, 4 blocks, 2 steals
(6-8/224); key WCU reserve in 2022-23; all-conference at D2 Catawba; from Savannah. Ga.
F Corneilous Williams, r-Fr. — 12 mpg, 4 ppg, 4 rpg, 79% FG, 69% FT, 1/1 ATO, 7 blocks, 0 steals
(6-9/205); LSU redshirt in 2022-23; starred at Combine Academy prep school; from Meridian, Miss.
F Colin Granger, r-Jr. — 11 mpg, 3 ppg, 2 rpg, 79% FG, 43% FT, 0/9 ATO, 3 blocks, 3 steals
(6-9/245); key WCU reserve in 2022-23; two seasons as Ohio backup; from John’s Creek, Ga.

*—returning starter (started at least 50% of current team’s games last season)

Western Carolina Catamounts
10-Year Snapshot

Season — Overall, League (Place), Postseason
2022-23 — 18-16, 10-8 SoCon (4th), CBI 1st Round (Justin Gray)
2021-22 — 11-21, 5-13 SoCon (10th), no postseason (Justin Gray)
2020-21 — 11-16, 4-13 SoCon (9th), no postseason (Mark Prosser)
2019-20 — 19-12, 10-8 SoCon (5th), no postseason (Mark Prosser)
2018-19 — 7-25, 4-14 SoCon (8th), no postseason (Mark Prosser)
2017-18 — 13-19, 8-10 SoCon (6th), no postseason (Larry Hunter)
2016-17 — 9-23, 4-14 SoCon (8th), no postseason (Larry Hunter)
2015-16 — 16-18, 10-8 SoCon (5th), CBI 1st Round (Larry Hunter)
2014-15 — 14-16, 8-8 SoCon (4th), no postseason (Larry Hunter)
2013-14 — 19-15, 10-6 SoCon (5th), no postseason (Larry Hunter)

*—conference champion

NOTE: Please visit the North Carolina Sports Network’s 2023-24 profiles and 10-year snapshots for all 19 Division One men’s basketball programs in North Carolina.

Appalachian State Mountaineers, Sun Belt Conference

Campbell Camels, Coastal Athletic Association

Charlotte 49ers, American Athletic Conference

Davidson Wildcats, Atlantic-10 Conference

East Carolina Pirates, American Athletic Conference

Gardner-Webb Runnin’Bulldogs, Big South Conference

High Point Panthers, Big South Conference

NC Central Eagles, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

North Carolina A&T Aggies, Coastal Athletic Association

UNC Asheville Bulldogs, Big South Conference

UNC Greensboro Spartans, Southern Conference

UNC Wilmington Seahawks, Coastal Athletic Association

Western Carolina Catamounts, Southern Conference