Transylvania men's basketball coach Brian Lane is smiling a lot more this preseason.
That's not to say that the Pioneers coach ever enters a season under a cloud of doom. But a glance at the team's 2015-16 media guide doesn't contain much information about their last two campaigns.
Lane believes his circumstances have changed.
"This bunch here — they want to be pushed," Lane said Thursday. "There's no doubt that I'm pushing this team as hard as we have in a number of years, because I see a potential there.
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"It's not just wishful thinking that we can be in the upper part of the league. This is a team, if we do it right, ... we'll be competitive."
Last season brought some big wins against Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference co-champions Defiance and Mount St. Joseph. But it also saw a slew of injuries and some tough, close losses that added up to a 12-13 record. And the Pioneers missed the conference tournament for the first time in Lane's 15-year tenure.
"I'm a lot more optimistic of what the future holds," Lane said ahead of his team's season opener Saturday against John Carroll at a tournament in Maryland. "We knew that when we lost several really good seniors a couple years ago that the next year (2013-14) was going to be a very, very difficult year."
Difficult as in a 9-17 rebuilding effort in 2013-14 after back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
This season, the Pioneers bring back second-team all-conference players Parker Stansberry, a 6-6 senior forward, and Alex Jones, a 6-3 junior guard.
Jones led the team in scoring (16.9 ppg) and assists (4.1 apg) last season and stepped up as the Pioneers' primary playmaker when point guard Sam Sergeant went out with a broken foot in their 16th game.
"When Sam got hurt, we put the ball in Alex's hands a lot," Lane said. "Alex is really good at coming off ball screens and (making) the mid-range jump shot. He had 40 points last year in a game and did not attempt a three. ... He's as good at creating a shot as anybody I've coached."
Stansberry, a major contributor in each of his three seasons, led the team in rebounds at seven per game and averaged 13.6 points last year.
"We have to find a post presence. And he's one of those guys who can do it," Lane said of Stansberry.
But it's this year's freshman class that has really put a bounce in Lane's step. Five of the eight newcomers have high school Sweet Sixteen experience.
"We're going to have to count on several of those guys to play right away," Lane said. "And, luckily, they're guys that I'm thinking can compete at the college level immediately."
Three will start for the Pioneers on Saturday. High school teammates Bo Schuh (a 6-6, forward) and Cooper Theobald (a 6-1 guard), who won the state title with Covington Catholic in 2014, will be joined on the floor by Knott County Central's Simon Christon (a 6-3 guard/forward).
"Bo and Cooper are all out all the time in practice," Lane said. "They get mad at themselves when they're not performing. And they have a pride level that's really high. Simon's the same way."
Christon has impressed his coaches with his work ethic, especially after an Achilles strain limited him in practice. To make up for the lost time, he began showing up in the gym at 5:30 a.m.
"I walked in the door and looked down, and he's already got 480 shots up (a device records the stats)," Lane said. "It's like 6:45 (a.m.)."
Sophomore Robert Dence, a 6-6 forward, will be one of the first players off the bench along with Sergeant, who is still slowed by foot problems.
"We're still trying to find out who that next wave of guards will be — whether it will be (freshman) Hines Jones or (sophomore) Tristan Burgess or (some of the other freshmen)," Lane said.
Tim Bickel, a 6-7 sophomore forward, also figures to be in the mix for playing time in the post once he recovers from a concussion.
Lane said he thinks the renewed referee emphasis on freedom of offensive movement and the reduction of time on the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds can only help the Pioneers.
"I think we're going to be able to play fast as long as we stay healthy, because of our depth at the guard spot," Lane said.
In a preseason poll, Heartland conference coaches picked Transylvania to finish fourth behind Mount St. Joseph, Rose-Hulman Institute and Hanover.
"I thought last year we were very close," Lane said of seeing the program return to prominence. "There are good days ahead."