Brian Lane and his Transylvania basketball team have been on top, looking down at the rest of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, at the end of seasons.
Never at the start of a season, though — until now.
League coaches pick the Pioneers to repeat as champions despite the loss of their top three scorers (Joey Verax, 16.6 ppg; Aaron Cash, 9.7 ppg; Brock Jones, 9.3 ppg).
Three senior starters return in 6-foot-5 Blake McCowan (8.3 ppg), 5-10 senior Matthew Parton (9.0) and 5-11 Tim Tierney (9.8). McCowan led the team last season with 5.6 rebounds per game. Parton was tops with 58 three-pointers. Tierney led with 36 steals and 82 assists.
McCowan, league tourney MVP, hasn't forgotten a 71-67 overtime loss to Guilford in the first round of the NCAAs.
"We got an early exit last year to a team that made it to the Final Four," he said. "Just thinking of being that close to being able to go that far, it's drove me and the seniors and other upperclassmen to work harder so we can make it and not be the ones put out in the first round."
Also back from that 21-6 team is 6-3 Chris Owens, who averaged 5.7 points and played every game as a freshman.
"Those are four solid players that played in last year's NCAA Tournament and won a lot of games the last few years," Lane said. "Some of these young guys, there's a need for some of them to play right away."
Brandon Rash, a 6-3 freshman out of Montgomery County, will be in the starting lineup when Transy opens its season Sunday at Carthage.
"We have a lot of expectations going into the season," Parton said. "What we're really focusing on is what we need to do for this year specifically to help our team win. ... A lot is required because a lot is expected."
Rash is part of a group that Lane calls "as good a recruiting class depth-wise that we've had since I got back to Transy (2001)."
Leading freshmen include Barrett Meyer (6-2, Franklin County), Taylor Botkin (6-2, Lexington Catholic) and Matt Clevenger (6-1, Pike ville). Clevenger is one of three rookies who were high school players of the year in their region, with Ethan Spurlin (6-4, Lincoln County) and J.D. Strange (6-0, Pineville). Mike Satterwhite (6-8, Western Hills), the tallest of the freshmen, has been limited by a foot injury.
Drew Kring (5-11, jr.), Michael Stone (6-2, soph.) and Matt Wise (6-5 jr.) offer experienced help off the bench.
"In the past, we've run a lot of sets to get certain people shots," Lane said. "We're trying to have more of a situation where they're making plays instead of running plays. And when you have new players, it's easier to do that."
Think too much and you have "paralysis by analysis," Lane said. "So, especially here early, we've tried to really condense the package. That inside action of McCowan, just a really, really strong scorer, and our good tandem of senior guards with Tierney and Parton, that's a great inside-out combination."