EMU men's basketball Coach Kirby Dean will quickly stop short of directly comparing this year's team with his 2009-10 team which made the program's only NCAA Tournament appearance. But it's hard not to compare them.
In 2009-10, the Runnin Royals returned all five of their starters from a 15-11 campaign and vaulted to the Elite Eight in the national tourney, finishing with a final record of 25-5 and a No. 4 national ranking. This year, Eastern Mennonite returns all five starters from a 12-15 team, and Dean is brimming with optimism. And he will compare that.
"After the 15-11 year, going into the next year I thought we were going to be good," said Dean. "But never in my wildest imagination did I see those guys ascending to that level of play. I didn't see fourth in the country coming. But to be honest, I'm just as optimistic now as I was then. Can you catch lightning in a bottle twice? I don't know, but it's certainly something we'll strive for."
Last winter, Dean needed five new starters and the young team had an up-and-down season. But ending with three straight wins before an overtime loss in the ODAC Quarterfinals to Randolph-Macon gave the men some hope which translated into a lot of hard work in the offseason.
"I think that last year's finish was probably about as crucial as anything could be," Dean said. "We were up and down so much with a young team. Even some of the older kids hadn't played a lot (before last year). So I think the fact that we got things going at the end created an air of optimism and pushed us into offseason workouts. I would say the offseason and preseason were as productive as any of my years that I've been here. Through two weeks of practice I've seen big time improvement in my returners, as much as I've ever seen."
And the returners abound, as EMU brings back the top nine players from last year's rotation. Headlining the crew is 6-4 senior wing Andrew Thorne (Front Royal, VA/Skyline). In his first season as a starter, Thorne averaged team highs of 13.1 points and 7.1 rebounds and was named All-ODAC Third Team. Also back is 6-4 junior R.J. Sims (Fort Washington, MD/Friendly) who was good for 12.3 points and led the men with 61 assists and 56 steals, as well as 6-6 big man Owen Longacre (Telford, PA/Christopher Dock) who averaged 9.9 points and 5.8 rebounds. He also found a stroke from the outside and led the team with a 42.9 three-point field goal percentage.
Junior guards 6-2 Dajon Daniel (Fredericksburg, VA/Mountain View) and 6-0 Adam Burroughs (Roanoke, VA/Northside) return as well. Daniel finished with a 9.3 scoring clip and 55 assists, while Burroughs scored 8.3 a game with 60 assists.
While the men do return all five starters, Dean said nothing is a given this year as his other returners have improved in the offseason and a handful of talented newcomers will also push for playing time.
"We always say that everything is an open competition and everybody has to earn their chance to start," said EMU's tenth-year coach. "Those guys started a lot of games last year. If you were playing the odds, chances are that they will be the starting five again. But the best players are going to play."
Other returning rotation players are: 6-6 David Falk (Madison, VA/Madison) (6.5 PPG, 4.1 RPG), 6-2 James Williams (Capitol Heights, MD/Archbishop Carroll) (4.4 PPG), 6-7 Ryan Yates (Alexandria, VA/T.C. Williams) (4.2 PPG) and 6-2 Randell Smith (Woodbridge, VA/Garfield) (2.3 PPG), although Smith is recovering from an injury. Dean also noted 6-4 Davis & Elkins transfer Dorian Valentine (Bassett, VA/Carlisle) as an impact player, and thinks he may see some contributions from his freshmen, especially 6-4 Mike Richardson (Harrisonburg, VA/Broadway), 5-11 Miles Henderson (Roanoke, VA/William Fleming) and 6-7 Rashad Chambers (Covington, VA/Alleghany). The Royals were also hoping for added depth from 6-4 Messiah transfer Chris Yoder (Lancaster, PA/Hempfield), but he will miss the year with a knee injury.
One area of weakness last season was outside shooting, and the Runnin Royals will need to improve on their 28.3% from three point range. Shooting and physique were two areas that Dean said his men worked on during the offseason.
"We had a lot of kids that worked really hard in the weight room, and a lot of kids that got up a lot of shots," explained Dean. "Our kids knew we needed to improve our shooting percentage. You can also see a lot of changes in my kids' bodies. A lot of kids have bulked up and look great. The bottom line is the kids had a good offseason."
One key for Dean-coached teams has always been to earn extra possessions, generally through offensive rebounds and turnovers. The men have specific statistical targets set to meet those ends.
"Last year we were +5 in shot attempts per game and dead even in free throws," Dean explained. "So the goal this year is to double that shot attempts to +10 and to get that into the plus side on free throw attempts. We feel we can do that if we improve on offensive rebounds and increase the turnover margin from +3 to +5. And then if we can shoot the ball better from three, we'll have a chance to be a really good team."
Thanks in part to the way his 2009-10 team made national waves, combined with the strong finish his men had last year, Dean doesn't expect to surprise anyone this time around.
"I think people are already going to expect us to be pretty good," he said. "Maybe not top 25 in the country, but a really tough out. With so many kids that played last year coming back, the way we finished (beating Guilford and taking Macon to OT in tournament), and adding a couple of kids that we think can contribute, I don't think we can sneak up on anybody. But I don't see a need to sneak up on anybody. I just think we need to be the best that we can be."
The Runnin Royals claimed the seventh seed in last spring's ODAC Tournament with a league record of 6-10. The men beat rival Bridgewater College in a First Round game in Harrisonburg to earn an ODAC Tournament win for the third straight year. Eventual NCAA-qualifier Randolph-Macon beat out EMU in an overtime thriller in the ODAC Quarterfinals. It was also the third straight year the Yellow Jackets have knocked the men out of the ODAC Tournament.
Dean knows his team might still be a bit unseasoned to win the ODAC's regular season title, especially with Virginia Wesleyan, one of the nation's top teams, on the schedule twice. But he is hoping for the Runnin Royals to again peak at the right time.
"We're looking to finish as high as we can," he said, "obviously we're shooting for top five to avoid that play-in game and to get a really good seed heading into tournament. We'll be a whole lot better in February than in November. If we can hit our stride in February like we did last year, but with a better team, we have a chance to make some noise. And obviously if you win the ODAC Tournament, anything can happen from there."
Eastern Mennonite plays an alumni game this Saturday at 7:00pm. They open the regular season by hosting the EMU Tip-Off Classic on Nov. 16 & 17, playing Elizabethtown and Ferrum. Bridgewater will be the fourth team at the Classic, making for an exciting start to what should be an exciting season in Yoder Arena.