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 Jan. 15): 44-39 (.530)  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 Jan. 15): 15-2, 4-0 SoCon

2023-24 Midseason Ranking (KenPom): #113 nationally (2nd in SoCon)

Upcoming Schedule Highlights: Samford (1/16), at Furman (1/20), UNC Greensboro (1/24), Chattanooga (1/31)

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 and a half seasons, 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.

Eight of the Catamounts’ top nine players this season came to WCU via the transfer portal, but not from a coast-to-coast geography. Seven of the nine players are from a contiguous four-state region (Georgia-North Carolina-South Carolina-Virginia) that surrounds Cullowhee. Gray knows that area very well from his time as a long-time player, coach and recruiter.

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 15-2 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 now 15-2 and has been the best team in the Southland Conference this season.

The Catamounts, a Division One program for almost 50 years, have never posted a first-place finish in conference play and have only one league championship (in 1996) and NCAA Tournament trip to their credit.

About halfway through the 2023-24 season, such lofty accomplishments remain in play for WCU. The Catamounts’ next three games — home versus Samford on Tuesday night, at Furman on Saturday, then back home versus UNC Greensboro next Wednesday night — are against three of the other top contenders for the SoCon title.

2023-24 Western Carolina Catamounts
(15-2, 0-0 SoCon; through Jan. 15)


Vonterius Woolbright*, Sr. — 34 mpg, 21 ppg, 13 rpg, 45% FG, 70% FT, 28% threes, 91/63 ATO, 0 blocks, 8 steals
(6-6/215); 2023 2nd-team All-SoCon; NJCAA HM A-A at Lawson State CC; Albany, Ga.

Tre Jackson*, Sr. — 33 mpg, 14 ppg, 4 rpg, 38% FG, 76% FT, 37% threes, 35/24 ATO, 1 block, 16 steals
(6-1/175); 2023 2nd-team All-SoCon; 2022 Iowa State transfer (3-year backup); Blythewood HS, Columbia, S.C.

Russell Jones Jr.*, Sr. — 32 mpg, 12 ppg, 3 rpg, 45% FG, 69% FT, 41% threes, 22/12 ATO, 1 block, 19 steals
(5-8/175); 2022 Winthrop transfer (3-year backup); Westwood HS, Columbia, S.C.

DJ Campbell, So. — 29 mpg, 12 ppg, 4 rpg, 55% FG, 71% FT, 36% threes, 27/25 ATO, 2 blocks, 11 steals
(6-2/205); part-time WCU starter in 2022-23; Kecoughtan HS, Hampton, Va.

Charles Lampten, Gr. — 16 mpg, 2 ppg, 5 rpg, 64% FG, 71% FT, 9/11 ATO, 31 blocks, 6 steals
(6-11/225); 2023 College of Charleston transfer (backup); ex-Dawson CC star; Roanoke, Texas

Key Reserves

Kamar Robertson, Gr. — 15 mpg, 3 ppg, 1 rpg, 39% FG, 71% FT, 11% threes, 7/6 ATO, 1 block, 4 steals
(6-0/180); 2023 Mercer transfer (part-time starter); Cambridge HS; Alpharetta, Ga.

Bernard Pelote, r-Jr. — 21 mpg, 8 ppg, 5 rpg, 49% FG, 67% FT, 34% threes, 5/10 ATO, 6 blocks, 4 steals
(6-8/224); key WCU reserve in 2022-23; ex-D2 Catawba (all-conference); Savannah, Ga.

Corneilous Williams, r-Fr. — 12 mpg, 4 ppg, 3 rpg, 81% FG, 52% FT, 1/4 ATO, 14 blocks, 2 steals
(6-9/205); 2023 LSU transfer (redshirt); Combine (N.C.) Academy prep star; Meridian, Miss.

Colin Granger, r-Jr. — 11 mpg, 3 ppg, 3 rpg, 61% FG, 44% FT, 1/12 ATO, 6 blocks, 4 steals
(6-9/245); 2022 Ohio transfer (2-year backup); Lambert HS; 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 and all 15 Atlantic Coast Conference programs.

Appalachian State Mountaineers, Sun Belt Conference

Campbell Camels, Coastal Athletic Association

Charlotte 49ers, American Athletic Conference

Davidson Wildcats, Atlantic-10 Conference

Duke Blue Devils, Atlantic Coast Conference

East Carolina Pirates, American Athletic Conference

Elon Phoenix, Coastal Athletic Association

Gardner-Webb Runnin’Bulldogs, Big South Conference

High Point Panthers, Big South Conference

NC Central Eagles, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

NC State Wolfpack, Atlantic Coast Conference

North Carolina Tar Heels, Atlantic Coast Conference

North Carolina A&T Aggies, Coastal Athletic Association

Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Atlantic Coast Conference

Pitt Panthers, Atlantic Coast Conference

Queens Royals, Atlantic Sun Conference

Syracuse Orange, Atlantic Coast Conference

UNC Asheville Bulldogs, Big South Conference

UNC Greensboro Spartans, Southern Conference

UNC Wilmington Seahawks, Coastal Athletic Association

Virginia Cavaliers, Atlantic Coast Conference

Wake Forest Demon Deacons, Atlantic Coast Conference

Western Carolina Catamounts, Southern Conference