If there is a target, it’s there for good reason—the Bluejays ran the table in the KCAC a year ago—blistering their way to a perfect, 20-0 conference record to win the regular-season title for the second year in a row.
“Anytime you go undefeated through conference and you’re returning some guys, and then you get picked to win it again, obviously there’s a target,” Ratzlaff said.
“You can run from that or you can try not to talk about it, (but) the only thing you can do is embrace it. I actually kind of like it because I can bring it up over and over. (Other teams are) going to play their best basketball when they play Tabor College, and you can expect that on the road, at home, no matter what.”
Last season, Tabor won the KCAC tournament for the second time in three years and advanced to the NAIA Division II national championship tournament for the third-consecutive year.
But the season was not without disappointment, as the Bluejays lost to Indiana University East in the first round. Tabor has not won a first-round matchup since 2001.
The Bluejays ranked as high as sixth in the NAIA Top 25 poll and ranked ninth in the postseason poll, completing the season with an overall record of 30-4.
“It’s so tough when 95 percent of your season you find a way to get it done, and then the last game (is) almost a blur because it was so ugly,” Ratzlaff said. “I hope that they realize that they have to start over—it’s a new season—and realize how fortunate we were to not lose any games in conference when we probably should have.
“Hopefully they realize that regardless of what happens in conference, you’ve got to keep working because if you don’t keep getting better and you happen to get back to the national tournament, you’re going to run into a beast. We need to be one of those beasts instead of running into one.”
This season, Tabor returns four starters, including a pair of All-KCAC returners, to lead the charge. Ratzlaff has also brought in five transfers and seven freshmen.
The Bluejays graduated two all-conference honorees in D’Marco Smith, a unanimous second-team pick last year; and Malik Brooks, a third-team selection. Smith scored an average of 14.4 points per game; Brooks scored 13.4.
However, returning to anchor the team at point guard is senior Lance Carter. Carter was named the KCAC Player of the Year last season and was a unanimous first-team selection. Carter led the team in points (18.3), rebounds (8.1) and assists (KCAC best 5.5) per game a year ago. He ranked eighth nationally in assists (188), 11th in assists per game, 24th in rebounds (274), 27th in total scoring (621), 42nd in rebounds per game, 44th in defensive rebounds per game (5.8) and 47th in points per game.
Carter brings versatility to the floor with an ability to play any position, Ratzlaff said.
“His will to win and ability to bring teammates along with him in that fight is amazing,” he said. “His ability to get everybody involved on offense and still be explosive as a scorer only makes guys want to play with him.”
Ratzlaff has a number of additional returners who will be called upon to contribute minutes.
Senior Tullio Parry returns and has been playing some on the perimeter. He averaged 6.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game as a forward last year.
“Tullio’s been playing some guard spot, so we’ve put him on the perimeter some,” Ratzlaff said. “We’ll have the ability to move him out on the wing if we want to.”
Junior Alan Urrutia also provides versatility. He turned in per-game averages of 5.7 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists.
“Even though (Alan’s) a point guard, we can always move him off the ball or we can put Lance off the ball or whatever we want to do,” Ratzlaff said. “Alan has done a really good job for us, so he’s going to obviously fill in some of those minutes at the guard spot.”
Also returning are juniors Kyle Baker and Jordan Horstick.
“They’re going to have to cover some of (Malik’s) shooting ability,” Ratzlaff said. “They’re going to have to really shoot it. That’s what they do, and if they can do it, they’re going to play.”
Ratzlaff has also brought in a pair of junior transfers to help fill the void: Julian Winton and DeShun Patterson.
“(Julian) can really shoot it,” Ratzlaff said. “He can really put it on the floor. He’s about as fast as I’ve ever seen with the basketball, and he’s really, really athletic. He really doesn’t have a lot of holes in his game, and he’s a very, very good defender.
“DeShun Patterson is a guard that shoots it really well. He has a really nice mid-range jumper. He is maybe as athletic as anyone has ever seen in this conference of all time.”
Also new this year is freshman Scott Duerksen, who will add to the Bluejays’ depth.
Senior Jonathan Gibson is a returning starter who was named the KCAC Defensive Player of the Year last season. A member of the All-KCAC defensive team and an honorable mention selection, Gibson turned in per-game averages of 5.7 points and 6.1 rebounds. He ranked eighth nationally in blocks (67) and 11th in blocks per game (2.2).
“(Jonathan) keeps his game simple, which is good,” Ratzlaff said. “He’s going to be just as good on defense, and he has gotten better on offense. He’s a much better free-throw shooter, and he showed that last year. He’s going to be dominant inside for us.”
Senior Davaghndre Jones also returns as a starter. A season ago, he recorded per-game averages of 5.7 points and 3.4 rebounds.
“(Davaghndre has) added some things to his game,” Ratzlaff said. “He’s more versatile off the dribble. He can shoot a little bit of a mid-range now. He’s also one that knows what his role is. He keeps it simple, which is nice. He’s going to have a good senior year.”
Seniors Jaylon Sims and Jimson Clerveus return following a redshirt year, as does junior Alex Arnold.
Ratzlaff has also added newcomers to the mix, including senior Cody May and junior Wesley Harrison.
Also battling for varsity spots are junior Gaven Schumann and sophomore Diontre Cutliff.
Ratzlaff said he anticipates his team’s offense to be a strength this season, as well as its transition game. He said depth is again a strong point of the team.
Tabor was picked first in both the preseason coaches’ and media polls, and Ratzlaff said he expects KCAC competition to be strong across the board, with additional top-tier teams in York and Oklahoma Wesleyan. The Panthers advanced to the quarterfinal round at the national tournament last year before losing to eventual-champion Indiana Wesleyan.
“If you don’t show up, you’re going to lose, no matter where you go,” he said. “Everybody’s going to be better from last year. I think the fact that we did go undefeated throughout the entire conference, I’m guessing motivated everyone else a little bit to go maybe recruit a little bit harder.”
Ratzlaff and the team have multiple goals for the season.
“With the group that we have back, I expect to win conference, I expect to go back to the national tournament, and a goal is definitely to win at the national tournament,” he said. “But I do realize a lot of things, for that to happen, do have to fall in place.”
Coming—Tabor will kick off the season by hosting NAIA Division I opponent William Woods Monday at 7:30 p.m.