The connotation that comes with redshirt players inspires potential in collegiate sports. Whatever the reason — transfer, eligibility, injury– redshirt players are prized commodities for a college team as they learn and are coached for an entire season without squandering a day of eligibility.
Two of the redshirt players on the men’s basketball team this season are Jahmiah Simmons and Mark Tikhonenko. Simmons is a sophomore redshirt transfer while Tikhonenko is a true freshman sporting a redshirt for the Mean Green.
Both players are key parts of the future for head coach Grant McCasland’s program, and both also followed him from Arkansas State, along with assistant coach Jareem Dowling, affectionately referred to by Simmons as “Reem.”
“Coach Reem is basically our connection,” Simmons was coached by Dowling with the U-17 U.S. Virgin Islands team. “We both came with him, so we had that connection.”
In his freshman year at Arkansas State, Simmons averaged 6.4 points and five rebounds across 25 games, starting nine of those. Afterwards, he decided to go a little further west from his Saint Thomas roots in the Virgin Islands and follow McCasland, who took the head coaching position at North Texas.
“Their relationship [with Dowling] is really the core to our recruitment in them,” McCasland said. “It’s all about relationships, and Miah was so close with coach Reem that anywhere Reem went that’s where Miah would go [to play]. Then Mark was someone we were close with, and he expressed interest immediately in going wherever we went.”
Simmons was born in Saint Thomas, an island away from Dowling’s home of Saint Croix, and he played high school ball in Pace, Florida. His international roots are something he shares with his fellow redshirt teammate, Tikhonenko.
Hailing from Moscow, Russia, the 6-foot-10-inch freshman has seen the world at a Johnny Cash-esque rate. His basketball journey began in Russia before making stops in Spain, Tennessee and most recently, Mt. Zion Prep Academy in Maryland before settling in Denton this year.
Originally slated to attend Arkansas State, Tikhonenko met Simmons on his visit in 2016. The two knew they would eventually share the court together, but with both redshirting this season, their only court time together comes in the form of running scout team for the active roster at practice.
In the meantime, valuable lessons are absorbed everyday, especially by Simmons, who is using the off year to transition from playing forward to guard.
“I’m just watching,” Simmons said. “I’m playing a new position this year so while I’m on the side, I just try to pick up what they’re coaching Ryan [Woolridge] and the rest of the guards and try to learn from that. Basically, I’m just watching film and getting experience. I’ll be ready next year.”
Being on the sidelines during the game is a different experience for both foreigners, but Simmons knows it is only temporary.
“I want to be ready to take on that moment,” Simmons said. “I just want to be prepared for that first game [next year]. I don’t want to look back and have any regrets like I should have worked harder during my redshirt year.”
Tikhonenko’s basketball roots are deep. His father, Valeri, was a gold medal winner with the USSR in 1988, won three silver medals at the world championships and was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks. His mother, Victoria, played for the U-20 Kazakhstan team.
After some visa issues and geographical uncertainty, the big man has found a home. The next step is around the clock preparation.
“I’m just trying to play as much as I can,” Tikhonenko said. “I didn’t have a lot of playing experience the last three years. The majority of the time I’m trying to get basketball shots, game shots, get some penetration going.”
Tikhonenko played on Russian U-16 and U-18 teams, and Simmons was voted best small forward at the FIBA Centrobasket tournament in 2015.
As both wait their turn during the 2017-2018 season, the road to 2018-2019 is one fought more than just physically.
“When the team is gone, you have to mentally push yourself to go to the gym and work,” Tikhonenko said. “You can’t just sit down and get out of shape.”
While Tikhonenko is hard at work improving his lateral quickness and setting screens, Simmons is preparing for his position change. Simmons knows how important his shooting will be next season at the guard position and his drive shows every day.
McCasland has been able to see their progression over the season and is excited from the glimpses he’s seen in practice.
“It starts in the weight room first and foremost because that’s where they spend a bulk of their time,” McCasland said of their development. “Both have gotten in really good shape and their skill level has continued to improve, and we’ve been able to see that first hand in practices when they’ve gotten opportunities to compete.”
At the end of the day, one common goal unites the two redshirt players and the program as a whole.
“I want to do everything for my team to win,” Tikhonenko said. “I just want to win.”