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With two stars and a big cast, Morgan State sets its sights on a feel-good basketball season

This is the second of a seven-part series previewing local Division I men’s basketball teams. Check back this week and in The Baltimore Sun for a look ahead at Loyola Maryland, UMBC, Towson, Maryland and Navy.

Maybe the best thing Morgan State men’s basketball coach Todd Bozeman has seen this preseason is actually something he’s heard: His Bears are talking. A lot. On offense. On defense. So much, in fact, that he can deliver a scouting report.

There’s Martez Cameron, who speaks as a point guard should — with everybody. On the wing, Tyler Streeter is so agreeable, he could be a politician one day, Bozeman says, which he insists is a compliment, while Tiwian Kendley is as charismatic as he is talented. Forward Phillip Carr doesn’t talk much on the court … until he does and his teammates realize, as Bozeman put it: “OK, now we’ve got to listen.”

“It's part of the experience and part of them growing and becoming more comfortable in their space at Morgan,” the 12th-year coach said last week.

It’s a good thing the Bears are talking, if only to drown out the praise those around the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference are offering. A 2016-17 season that started with low expectations (projected finish: ninth) and soldiered through midyear injuries ended with Morgan State in third place and maybe the conference’s two best players returning for one more go at a league title.

Now Bozeman has what might be his best team since 2009-10, the last Bears squad to make the NCAA tournament, with Morgan State the preseason favorite in the MEAC. Carr, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is the Preseason Player of the Year. Kendley, the reigning scoring champion, is a preseason all-conference pick. There’s real power in their partnership, and in the numbers around them.

“Anytime you return 10 guys,” Bozeman said, “you should have a chance to definitely improve on the season before.”

The foundation is there. Last season, Bozeman had only one returning starter in Carr. This season, with six of the Bears’ top seven minute-getters back, they return 80.8 percent of their scoring, 74.9 percent of their rebounding and 75.5 percent of their assists.

It is obvious in how they practice. Sessions flow more easily, Carr said. Veterans remember where to be on defense, how to cut on offense, and if they forget, they need only ask a teammate for a refresher course. There is a collective understanding of the program’s expectations — “You’ve got to ring this bell every day,” Bozeman explained, “and you've got to ring it like this every day” — and with it, a blooming sense of togetherness.

“The chemistry from last year comes back, and then it grows a little bit more because you learn a little bit more about a person or you learn their tendencies,” Carr said.

The hope this season is that Morgan State finishes better with its two stars together than apart. Kendley and Carr suffered foot fractures early in MEAC play, their absences never overlapping but stringing together, one after the other, for 12 straight games. In that stretch, the Bears went 7-5. After both had returned, they ended the season 4-5, including an upset loss in the conference tournament quarterfinals.

Last season’s roller-coaster means there’s “not too much that we haven't seen before,” Carr said. “Obviously, there's more adversity we can see, but there’s just not too much that we haven't seen that we need to know to win.”

Only the team’s four newcomers, Carr said, haven’t learned that lesson. Bozeman hopes they’ll get the message. His veterans like to talk.

At a glance: Morgan State

Projected finish: First of 13 in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Game to watch: Jan. 15 at North Carolina Central. Early in the conference schedule though it might be, this meeting could decide the MEAC regular-season title. The Bears are the preseason favorite in the league, earning half of the 26 first-place votes. The Eagles are the defending regular-season and tournament champions. Last season, Morgan State’s 68-62 home loss in early February ended a stretch of seven wins in eight games and was the first of three straight defeats.

Best-case scenario: MEAC Preseason Player of the Year Phillip Carr and preseason first-team All-MEAC selection Tiwian Kendley stay healthy and boss the conference competition as the Bears punch their first NCAA tournament selection since 2010.

Worst-case scenario: Carr and Kendley, bothered by foot injuries during their breakout 2016-17 seasons, are sidelined at inopportune moments for a team that finds it’s easier to be the hunter than the hunted.

Did you know? Neither of the team’s two best players, MEAC Preseason Player of the Year Phillip Carr and preseason first-team All-MEAC selection Tiwian Kendley, started their career at Morgan State. Carr, a senior forward, played for a year apiece at junior colleges Mohawk Valley (N.Y.) and Williston State (N.D.). Kendley, a senior guard, spent two years at Lamar Community College (Colo.) after a standout high school career at Eleanor Roosevelt in Prince George’s County.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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