Young team from Lexington, loaded with talent, must overcome inexperience.
Division I basketball fans may think "Kentucky" is that team. Division III followers know it's "Transylvania."
Like their high-profile neighbors, the Pioneers have big plans as they open their season at home Monday night against Thomas More.
Transy went 14-12 last season, finishing 10-6 and in fourth place in Heartland Conference play. The 12 losses included a pair of overtimes. Three others were decided by a combined eight points.
Never miss a local story.
Having lost two seniors, Coach Brian Lane figures to start none this season.
"This is a team that I think is going to be a fun team to watch," said Lane, whose team is No. 4 in the league pre-season poll. "Early on, I think our youth will probably show at times. We're really heavy in the freshman and sophomore class, probably from our top 10 guys. ... But that also is a unique opportunity for us to get some really much-needed experience as we get to the middle part of the season and head into the conference race."
Chris Owens, a 6-foot-3 junior, is the veteran and energizer of the likely starters. He averaged 9.2 points and 3.6 rebounds last season.
"I think we can do very well," Owens said. "We're very talented. We're young but ... if we can mesh well and get our chemistry right and play defense, the sky's the limit."
Three sophomores — 6-2 Barrett Meyer, 6-3 Brandon Rash and 6-4 Ethan Spurlin — could start.
Barrett (11.5 ppg), slowed in the pre-season because of a broken finger, shot 40.4 percent from three-point range last season. He made a conference-record 11-for-12 in one game and was HCAC Freshman of the Year.
Rash started 25 of 26 games, averaging 8.5 points and 3.3 rebounds.
Spurlin played in nine games, spending most of his minutes on the junior varsity squad.
Lane is counting on Rash and Spurlin inside. He thinks each has learned much.
"We throw a lot at our freshmen and expect them to learn a lot," Lane said. "Plays and sets, and just how we play. Hopefully, this year it will be more of just playing without that freezing of the brain that sometimes happens when you're thinking instead of playing."
Freshmen Ashley Hatfield, 6-6, and Tate Cox, 6-1, both played in the State Tournament last March.
Hatfield, who helped Shelby Valley to the state title, is the first recruit in Lane's 10 seasons to have represented the state in the Kentucky-Indiana high school all-star series.
Lane says that Cox, out of Knott County Central, is the all-time leading scorer in the Mountain Classic and his likely starter at point guard.
"He's super-fast with the ball, really distributes it," Lane said. "I've told our guys 'you'd better run because, if you run, then Tate's going to be able to find you.' With that, that's going to hopefully free up some of our other guys that are really, really good shooters. ... I'm sure (Meyer's) eyes are getting bigger with the way that Tate moves the ball up the court and hits open guys."
Then, there's the ol' senior — 6-5 Matt Wise. From Gainesville, Fla., he is the son of Florida volleyball coach Mary Wise. His dad, Mark, is a former coach.
"He's one of those guys that, while it may not be in points, he just gives us so much more from the standpoint of helping those younger guys," Lane said. "He helped B.R. (Rash) and Barrett last year with that behind-the-scenes experience that will hopefully pay off this year."
A 40.4 percent three-point shooter, Wise sounds like a player-coach: "Our No. 1 goal is to be a great defensive team, without a question. Last year, we got into a habit of preaching 'don't let them score, no matter what.' And we got ourselves in trouble with a lot of fouling and gambling for steals and giving up a lot of wide-open looks. This year, we've kind of gone back to the basics in terms of our goal is to hold teams to 42 percent. We know that teams that are able to do that end up having great years."
Exactly, says Lane, who noted 47.2 percent field-goals-against last season.
"Our most successful teams have been around that 43, 44 figure," he said.
Wise used Florida's volleyball team, ranked No. 1 in the nation much of the season, to consider what's possible for Transy.
"One of the philosophies I always heard growing up with a coaching household is 'you win the games that you're suppose to and then split the ones that you're not supposed to,'" he said. "But I've got to tell you, watching my mom's team play this year, they've won the ones they were supposed to and almost all the ones they weren't supposed to, so I know that you can do better than just splitting down the middle. ... As young as we are, we're going to be a work in progress and we're going to grow, and we're going to get better as it goes."