Transylvania has suffered a number of subpar seasons since its last Division III NCAA Tournament appearance in 2013, breaking a string of three losing seasons last year with a 17-10 record and a fifth-place finish in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.
But this year’s team returns five of the Pioneers’ top six scorers.
“The rebuilding is over,” said Transy Coach Brian Lane.
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With leading scorer Alex Jones, graduated, this season’s hopes fall to players including juniors Cooper Theobald (15.6 points per game), Kyle Gullet (13.2 ppg), Gabe Schmitt (12.3 ppg) and sophomore Spencer McKinney (8.9 ppg).
“We’re in a position where every single game we should have a chance to win,” Lane, a four-time HCAC coach of the year, said. “And not only win games in conference, we need to get back quickly into the top 25 and stay there for a while.”
With 11 new players on a 19-man roster, the Pioneers hoped an international trip would both pull them closer together and do some good for the people they were visiting. Last month, the Transylvania men’s basketball team spent its fall break in the Dominican Republic sleeping in triple bunk beds in one half of an old church.
“It was out of a movie,” Lane said of the experience. “You can imagine how close you can get.”
The NCAA allows teams to take international trips every three years. Transy has gone to Canada twice most recently, but opted for the Caribbean this time around.
“We learned a lot of things — never take anything for granted, for one,” said Schmitt a sophomore guard. “We saw a lot of things that not a lot of people here in the United States probably see every day, (there’s) a lot of homeless people, a lot of poor people and it’s kind of brought us down to earth.”
The Pioneers held a basketball camp and served meals for children in addition to playing four split-squad scrimmages against an under-22 club and working with some of its coaches in Santiago. They also got 10 extra days of practice back home.
“Every time we’ve taken a really good trip like that it has transferred over into a successful season. I’d be shocked if that didn’t happen again,” Lane said.
The Pioneers were picked to finish third in the HCAC preseason coaches’ poll. Coming off a season where they lost three games to eventual HCAC champion Hanover by less than five points total, Transy has its sights set higher.
“Each of the last two years we’ve been improving,” said Theobald, a junior off Covington Catholic’s 2014 Sweet Sixteen championship team. “Our record’s gotten better each year, and I think all the pieces are in place this year to make a deep run.”
The influx of 11 new players includes Madison Southern’s Michael Jeffries and transfer Drew Trimble, who played for Lexington Christian.
Lane believes the newcomers can both push his returning players and allow the Pioneers to run the fast-paced style he prefers.
“When you have the number of players that we have that can compete, you’ve got to put pressure on people,” Lane said. “We’re wanting to get out on the break, wanting to get great shots early in the offense and creating stuff with your defense. All those things are things that need to happen.”
Leadership will come from seniors Robert Dence and Tristan Burgess and Theobald’s Covington Catholic teammate Bo Schuh, a junior who worked his way back into the lineup last year after suffering an ACL tear midway through his freshman season.
“The game that he got hurt ... , he had like 11 points in the first four minutes of the game,” Lane said, adding that he expected a full healthy offseason to help Schuh more than anything. “I’m looking forward to him getting back to that full strength and that type of player.”
Lane, who has led the Pioneers to four 20-win seasons and five NCAA tourney appearances, knows his team is close to contending again.
“We were right there last year … ,” Lane said, noting that rival Hanover made it to the Elite Eight. “So, that’s something that you head into the summer and think about, and hopefully our guys are able to respond.”
Greenville at Transylvania
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Coach: Brian Lane
Last season: 17-10
Fairfax Station, Va.
Nov. 15-GREENVILLE, 7:30; 20-CENTRE, 7:30; 25-at Thomas More
Dec. 2-at Bluffton, 4; 6-HANOVER, 7:30; 9-ROSE-HULMAN, 3; 16-at Anderson, 4; 20-EMORY & HENRY, 7; 21-GUILFORD, 5; 28-a-vs. Birmingham Southern, 4; 29-a-vs. Emory, 4
Jan. 3-at Earlham, 6; 6-DEFIANCE, 3; 10-MOUNT ST. JOSEPH, 7:30; 13-MANCHESTER, 3; 17-at Franklin, 7:30; 20-BLUFFTON, 4; 24-at Hanover, 7:30; 27-at Rose-Hulman, 3; 31-EARLHAM, 7:30
Feb. 3-at Manchester, 3; 7-at Mount St. Joseph, 7:30; 10-at Defiance, 3; 14-FRANKLIN, 7:30; 17-ANDERSON, 4; 23-25-b, TBD
Home games in all capital letters; a-Emory Classic at Atlanta, Ga.; b-HCAC Tournament