Questions abound for several in-state Division I college basketball team as their regular-season schedules begin Friday.
Loyola returns most of its core playing group and faces the pressure of repeating as MAAC champions. Can the Greyhounds make it two NCAA tournament appearances in a row?
Towson and Navy, meanwhile, are starting from the bottom. Ed DeChellis' Midshipmen are mired in a 22-game losing streak, while Pat Skerry's Tigers struggled through a 1-31 season a year ago.
Two first-year coaches — UMBC's Aki Thomas and Mount St. Mary's Jamion Christian — will be tasked with starting the rebuilding processes in Catonsville and Emmittsburg, respectively.
Around the MEAC, Todd Bozeman's Morgan State squad hopes it will recapture its postseason form of three years ago, Fang Mitchell's Coppin State team welcomes nine newcomers to the Eagles' roster, and Frankie Allen's UMES group is eyeing a long-awaited jump up the conference standings.
Here's a look at storylines for every DI in-state team — excluding Maryland — heading into the 2012-13 season.
The top five scorers from Coppin's 2011-12 roster are gone, meaning it'll likely be a year of transition for Fang Mitchell's Eagles.
In the absence of Tony Gallo (17.1 points per game), Akeem Ellis (12.6), Michael Harper (11.8), Logan Wiens (10.1) and Antonio Williams (8.9), Mitchell will first look to a senior transfer who's a familiar face to local basketball followers.
"I do have some decent players, but there's no one that has really performed at the level where I would have that expectation [to pick up the scoring slack], other than Troy Franklin," Mitchell said. "The way it seems to me, we're probably going to have to lean on him to get some leadership and scoring from him. Basically, we're only bringing back 15 points a game. We averaged around 77. So that's losing a lot. We're going to have to go through somebody. Troy might as well be the one."
A Baltimore Sun first-team All-Metro player out of Mount Carmel, Franklin spent two-plus seasons at Towson. Eight games into his junior season, the 5-foot-11 point guard left the Tigers and announced his plans to transfer. Franklin, who is Coppin's only senior, averaged 8.8 points at Towson, making 48 starts in 69 games.
"We're going to need some quality leadership from him," Mitchell said. "We're in a situation here where we're bringing in new players. It's really like starting at the ground level. We're going to need someone they can look up to and believe in."
The Eagles return sophomore point guard Taariq Cephas, sophomore power forward Brandon St. Louis, junior small forward Michael Murray, junior shooting guard Collin Johnson and junior shooting guard Mike Simpson. Mitchell has been especially impressed so far with Cephas (5.7 ppg) and Murray (5.3 ppg).
Among Coppin's nine newcomers, Mitchell likes the shooting ability of 6-3 guard Andre Armstrong, the versatility of 6-5 guard Patrick Cole, the inside presence of 6-7 forward Zach Burnham and the potential of 6-9 junior-college transfer Charles Ieans. While there is optimism about the Eagles' newcomers, Mitchell is realistic about Coppin matching its 14-16 record of a year ago.
"As I tell people, this is not a situation where positive things are going to happen early," Mitchell said. "It's going to take some time [for the team to] understand what I want and move forward from that point on."
As they sat in their team's dressing room inside CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh after losing to Ohio State in the opening round of last season's NCAA tournament, Loyola basketball players Erik Etherly and Dylon Cormier wore different expressions.
Etherly, then a junior, was downcast, to the point where tears filled his eyes. Cormier, a sophomore, was bouyant, a smile creasing his lips. But they shared a similar determination, one built as the Greyhounds set a Division I school record for wins (24) and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 years
"We've come miles since the beginning of the season," Etherly said at the time.
There are still plenty of miles left for the Greyhounds to travel in coach Jimmy Patsos' ninth season.
The journey begins again later this week, when Loyola opens the 2012-2013 season at home against Binghamton on Friday night. The Greyhounds have much of last year's team returning, but will have to fill the void left by those who are gone — and one who is there.
With Etherly (13.7 points, 7.5 rebounds), Cormier (13.4 points) and senior shooting guard Bobby Olson (11.1 points) at the core, Loyola will now have to figure out who will be its supporting cast.
Sophomore guard R.J. Williams (29 starts, 4.0 points) was supposed to emerge — and he still should — but the former St. Frances standout has been suspended until mid-January for a violation of team rules.
Cormier (Cardinal Gibbons), who went from being the team's defacto captain as a freshman to a selected captain as a sophomore, will likely run the point until Williams returns.
Freshmen swingmen Jarred Jones (two-time All-Metro selection at John Carroll) and Eric Laster (Delaware state player of the year) will likely play the role that Drummond seemed to thrive in last season before leaving Loyola and the MAAC for Toledo and the MAC.
Junior Jordan Latham (City), who transferred from Xavier two years ago, will likely pick up some of graduated post player Shane Walker's minutes, as will senior forward Julius Brooks and freshman Franz Rassman.
In many ways, this could be two different seasons — the one before Williams returns and the one after he returns from his suspension. Depending on how the Greyhounds do after they get their point guard back, another NCAA tournament appearance might hang in the balance.
For two seasons Morgan State has been looking to get back to the NCAA tournament. This year, the Bears will have their best chance to do so.
"I feel pretty good about it. … We have good size and athleticism," said coach Todd Bozeman, who enters his seventh year at Morgan. "I do like the group."
No one will be able to say the team isn't well rested entering the 2012 season. In the offseason the Bears spent six days in August in Nassau, Bahamas, playing three games against foreign competition, relaxing, sightseeing and snorkeling.
MSU kicks off the season at the Old Dominion Tournament with an opening-round game against Texas-San Antonio on Nov. 9. Highlights of the 2012-13 schedule include matchups against South Carolina on Nov. 16 and Virginia on Dec. 19.
While the Bears lost five players from last season, they return last year's leading scorer in senior DeWayne Jackson, a 6-foot-8 forward who posted 12.4 points per game and 3.1 rebounds. Jackson was unanimously voted a Preseason All-MEAC first teamer.
Jackson adds to what Bozeman says is the Bears' greatest strength: their length. They also return a pair of 6-9 players in sophomore Shaquille Duncan and junior Thair Heath. Redshirt junior Ian Chiles, a 7-2 center who averaged 9.4 points as a sophomore and earned Preseason All-MEAC second-team honors, rounds out the group.
Morgan State adds three freshmen to the mix in guards Donte Pretlow (Dunbar) and Rasean Simpson and forward Cedric Blossom, a Columbia native.
"We wanted to get guys that come from winning programs and understand winning. They understand sacrifice and patience to wait for your turn," Bozeman said.
After last season's 9-20 finish, the Bears were picked to finish third in the preseason MEAC poll behind Savannah State and Delaware State. But Bozeman and company have more in mind than a third-place finish. They want to return to March Madness.
"That's the beauty of it," Bozeman said. "Everyone starts off with the same goal."
-- Chris Trevino
Mount St. Mary's
First-year Mountaineers coach Jamion Christian, 29, has brought excitement back into a program that has won just 19 games the past two seasons, including an 8-21 mark last year. The Mount St. Mary's graduate and former Virginia Commonwealth assistant has worked this offseason to install a new culture and foundation for the Mountaineers.
"[I've been] getting our team to understand it's a daily grind … it's about making a commitment to working hard every day," said Christian, a former three-year captain at his alma mater.
The Mountaineers will be tested in the first half of their schedule, starting with their season opener Nov. 9 at Pittsburgh before taking on Georgetown two weeks later. The Mount is also scheduled to play Indiana, the preseason No. 1 team in the country, in Bloomington on Dec. 19.
The good news for Mount St. Mary's is that it loses just three players from last year's squad and returns its leading scorer in junior Julian Norfleet, who averaged 13.7 points and 4.2 rebounds as a sophomore. The team also adds depth with guards Rashad Whack (George Mason) and Sam Prescott (Marist), both of whom sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules.
The team returns senior — one of two on the team — forward Raven Barber (an Edgewood native) and his 9.2 points per game and 4.5 rebounds. Taylor Danaher, the team's redshirt freshman 7-footer and only true center on the roster, also looks to be a factor this season.
Tabbed to finish ninth in the Northeast Conference for the second straight year, Christian hopes to use this as motivation to bring back wins to Emmitsburg and build a new team foundation.
"I do believe that has helped motivate them and help them try and reach their full potential and say, 'Let's not waste a day,'" Christian said.
-- Chris Trevino
Isaiah Roberts is ready for his role as one of Navy's basketball captains. It's not only because of what he experienced during his first two seasons in Annaopolis, including a coaching change after his freshmen year and what became a 22-game losing streak as a sophonore.
The 6-1 junior guard, who was named the team's MVP last season despite averaging less than eight points, has prepared for the upcoming season just by going through his daily life at the Naval Academy.
"As a junior, that's one of the bigger years at tha academy [in terms of leadership]. Your job is to train the freshmen," Roberts said Monday. "I'm always out doing something, talking to freshmen or helping the freshmen get more comfortable with the academy academically and everything else.
"It all ties in, because we have so many freshmen on the team."
It is that seven-member freshman class, led by point guard Tilman Dunbar, that second-year Navy coach Ed DeChellis is hoping becomes the cornerstone of the program's turnaround. But DeChellis admits that the process is going even more slowly than he would like.
"Practices for us so far have been consistently inconsistent," said DeChellis, who came from Penn State a year ago. "Guys have not risen to the top. We have not been able to sit down and say, 'Here's our top five, here's our top eight.' It changes every day. That part has been very challenging."
Coaching a team without any seniors for the first time in his career, including 16 as a head coach, DeChellis said, "Right now we're kind of missing that [senior leadership] every day to kind of push guys. That's been really different and that's been one of the challenges."
The upside to that lack of experience — a total of 14 seasons among the 18 players on the roster — is that the team could become closer than others DeChellis has coached in the past.
"I think they all need each other, they understand that," DeChellis said. "If you want to be successful and win games, they are going to have to feed off each other. There's not a hierarchy right now where seniors are going to do this and juniors are going to do this. We're not in that situation. Everybody is kind of doing everything, which is a good thing. Everyone is kind of earning their stripes as they go along."
Don't bother looking for many familiar faces on Towson's 2012-13 roster. The Tigers return just three scholarship players from last season's 1-31 team.
The influx of new talent gives Towson coach Pat Skerry plenty of optimism — mixed with a dose of healthy skepticism — heading into his second season with the Tigers.
"Our guys work and compete, which I like," Skerry said. "They're extremely unselfish. Those are some good starting points. Concerns are we've got a long ways to go defensively and in our execution. … It's a little bit exasperating, [but there are] certainly some pieces to work with."
The most notable Towson returner is sophomore small forward Marcus Damas, who — along with graduated forward Robert Nwankwo — led the Tigers in scoring last season at 12.5 points per game.
Point guard Jerome Hairston headlines a promising freshman class. The three-star prospect is a rugged player who Skerry says can "make every pass," but still needs work defensively.
Rounding out Towson's starting lineup will be a trio of Big East transfers: junior shooting guard Mike Burwell (South Florida), junior power forward Jerrelle Benimon (Georgetown) and center Bilal Dixon (Providence), a graduate student.
"We're going to need [Burwell] to make shots and score the ball for us. We've got to consistently guard, but he's capable of that," Skerry said. "Benimon [has] … been dominant at times, and he can be. He's got a lot of tools to work with. … He can rebound and pass it. He's a versatile, big, rugged kid. He's got a lot of talent. He's going to play at a high level a lot of nights. He's capable of doing it. Dixon did a really good job of getting in tremendous shape. Obviously, he's going to be a factor for us in the paint."
Skerry will also count on sophomore combo guard Kris Walden, freshman forward Timajh Parker-Rivera and wing Rafriel Guthrie, a junior college transfer, for production. How much improvement the Tigers make in Skerry's second year remains to be seen.
"We can make a huge jump, but that doesn't mean we will," Skerry said. "Just because we've got new guys on the team, we still have to earn everything. We need to get to the point where we really consistently guard the way we're capable of doing."
Aki Thomas' goal had always been to become a head coach. But landing the UMBC job just two days before the official start of the Retrievers' season was never how the 33-year-old assistant expected to achieve his dream.
Randy Monroe resigned his position two days before practice began, and Thomas, an assistant with the Retrievers since 2007, took over as interim head coach. He immediately set out to explain the unexpected departure to a group of players looking for answers.
"It was pretty smooth. The guys obviously know me. I've been around, had my hand in recruiting pretty much all the guys," Thomas said. "Obviously, it's a lot of adversity with Coach Monroe leaving. But guys have been working hard, practices have been going well, scrimmages are going well. I'm impressed so far."
The Retrievers have gone 28-94 over the past four seasons, including a 4-26 mark during the 2011-12 campaign. But there are some pieces in place for UMBC to be improved this winter.
Junior forward Chase Plummer, a second-team All-America East selection last season, is back after averaging 15.4 points and 7.4 rebounds as a sophomore. UMBC's second- and third-leading scorers — senior guard and Pallotti grad Ryan Cook (12.5 ppg) and senior guard Brian Neller (11.4 ppg) —also return. Junior center Brett Roseboro, a transfer from St. Bonaventure, is expected to provide a strong inside presence for the Retrievers.
Thomas, meanwhile, is looking forward to putting a healthy Joey Getz back in his lineup, and having two talented freshmen in small forward Malik Garner and combo guard Aaron Morgan at his disposal.
"Getz is a very tough, smart player," Thomas said of the sophomore point guard, who missed 12 games last season with a leg injury. "I like what I've seen out of the freshmen. Aaron and Malik, they definitely play hard, definitely are talented. I think they understand the game."
Thomas said he plans to recruit Baltimore more than UMBC has in the past. In terms of style of play, the Retrievers will be a bit different than they were under Monroe.
"I'm not really a run-and-gun guy, but I definitely like to score in transition when we can," Thomas said. "I think we can rebound, and when you rebound you can run a little bit. ... Those will be the major changes."
Losing two starters to broken hands in the same game last season was a low point for UMES, which finished 9-22 on the year.
This season the Hawks, who were picked to finish 10th in preseason polls, are healthy and equipped to surprise a few teams in the MEAC.
"We really feel like we had a solid recruiting class," said UMES coach Frankie Allen. "We brought in some fresh blood."
It's a class sorely needed after UMES lost its top scorer from a season ago in Hillary Haley and five players overall. The loss of Haley, who graduated, especially hurt the Hawks after they struggled to score last season (59 points per game).
"We really felt we had to do better than that," Allen said. "Especially in the MEAC."
Allen added a scoring point guard in junior college transfer Kyree Jones and some serious length in 6-10 center Francis Ezeiru from Nigeria.
But the biggest impact on offense could come from Prince George's Community College transfer Donald Williams. Allen described the 6-4 guard as someone who can "ignite off the bench."
In the team's exhibition match against Salisbury, Williams came of the bench and led the Hawks offense with 18 points in helping them to a 76-66 win.
The Hawks return guards Louis Bell and Ishaq Pitt, the starters who broke their hands against Howard on Jan. 29, 2011. Allen is also excited about the health of junior Ron Spencer, a power forward who was second on the team in rebounding with 7.7 per game last year.
UMES will open its season in Honolulu, taking on Hawaii before facing the likes of Houston Baptist and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. But after the games in Hawaii, the schedule turns to anything but paradise.
The Hawks face a grueling non-conference slate. During December the Hawks will play Maryland, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Ohio in four consecutive games. But despite the daunting schedule, Allen is looking at the bigger picture.
"If we can go in and match their toughness and physicality it's going to prepare us for MEAC play," Allen said.
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