The Tabor College men?s basketball team will have a mix of returning and new talent this season as the Bluejays try to improve on last year?s 14-4 KCAC record under the direction of seventh-year coach Micah Ratz?laff.
Tabor finished 15-13 last year, ending the season with a loss to Ottawa in the KCAC tournament quarterfinals.
The Bluejays lost three seniors to graduation, including Tabor?s leading scorer in Ryan Chippeaux, who averaged nearly 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Even so, Tabor brings depth to the court this season, in returning players and newcomers alike.
Robbie Samuel, a 6-foot, 2-inch senior, is a returning starter at guard.
?Robbie?s a combo guard that can play every guard position, which makes him so valuable,? Ratzlaff said. ?He can play the 1, which is the point guard spot. He can play the 2. He can play the 3. He?s really good on both ends of the floor, really solid.?
Samuel also contributes leadership.
?(Robbie) does bring some leadership skills,? Ratz?laff said. ?He?s vocal. He leads by example.?
Tabor returns a second starter in senior forward Nick Sauer (6-6).
?Nick is big,? Ratzlaff said. ?He is one of the better shooters on our team.
?He brings a post game also. He can score off the block. He can shoot a 15-footer, and then he can really shoot a three. So he?s a tough matchup for other (post players) because he stretches the floor. He?s a great teammate. Extremely positive.?
Returning starter Chance LeBlanc, a 5-11 sophomore guard, is out for the season after undergoing ankle surgery. LeBlanc will red-shirt this year.
A fourth starter from last year, sophomore guard Cameron Rust (6-3), returns but Ratzlaff sees him contributing off the bench this year.
The Bluejays return several additional players this season.
Sophomore Brent Jackson, a 6-3 guard/forward, started some games last year.
?(Brent?s) very versatile, which makes him a really tough matchup,? Ratzlaff said. ?He can play the guard, we play him at the forward some. He?s kind of a mismatch nightmare who can do a bit of everything.
?He?s one of our best defensive players when he really wants to play.?
Junior JT Nemit (5-9) returns at point guard.
?He?s started a couple games, and he?s came off the bench a couple games,? Ratzlaff said. ?He?s just a really solid point guard who?s a nice spark when he?s in.?
Senior Marc Hopkinson (6-3) and Rust return at guard.
?Marc Hopkinson and Cameron Rust are just extremely solid college basketball players that can play on both ends of the floor,? Ratzlaff said.
David Loewen, a 6-5 senior from Hillsboro, returns at forward.
?Dave is back for his fifth year because he red-shirted one year,? Ratzlaff said. ?He had a really good summer and is giving us good varsity minutes off the bench.?
Senior guard Tory Dudgeon (6-5) returns after red-shirting last year.
?He?s brand new to the program for everybody else this year?a 6-5 guard that can also play almost any position on the floor. So we?re excited about that.?
Tabor senior forward Justin Malan (6-3) is red-shirting this year.
Ratzlaff will rely heavily on a number of newcomers.
Junior forward Andrew Thomas (6-7) comes to Tabor from Cameron University. Having sustained a partial MCL tear, the Grenada native was cleared to play the first full week of Novem?ber.
Thomas saw his first playing time Nov. 16 in Tabor?s 82-81 win over 13th-ranked Oklahoma Wesleyan University.
?It was good to get (Andrew) in there,? Ratzlaff said. ?He?s got a little ways to go because he?s been out of practice for a long time, so we?re just trying to get him in shape.?
Freshman Jonathan Gibson, a 6-8 forward, comes to Tabor from Grenada.
?He has given us great 10 to 15 minutes off the bench,? Ratzlaff said. ?Rebounds the ball really well. Really strong. His biggest weakness is finishing, and that?s what we?re working on. He?s improved a ton since he stepped in Hillsboro.?
Freshman Lance Carter, a 6-4 guard/forward, was a late summer acquisition.
?(Lance) has actually led us in scoring a couple times already,? Ratzlaff said. ?(He?s a) 6-4 matchup nightmare. Can literally play the 1 through the 5, actually. He?s probably our biggest surprise, I guess.?
Two additional guards have transferred to Tabor from junior college. Ratzlaff said juniors Dewayne Biggs (6-0) and D?Marco Smith (6-1) are ?two guards who are extremely fast and athletic, and the potential?s through the roof with both of them.?
At press time, the Blue?jays were 4-4 for the new season. Ratzlaff said his team has struggled offensively thus far, but still manages to stay competitive.
?No matter how bad we are offensively, this team tends to be able to still stay in the basketball game, which is a great sign,? he said. ?The problem is we haven?t played well offensively yet?we?re not shooting the ball very well at all.?
While depth is a strength, in the early games it has been inconsistent.
?We?re working on chemistry with so many guys because we?re going to play 10 to 12 deep,? Ratzlaff said. ?There?s no way you can go any deeper than that.
?Everybody that suits up varsity actually is good enough to be on the floor, so it?s hard finding minutes for everybody. We?re still working on narrowing down our lineup a little bit so these guys can figure out who they?re going to play. But until guys are consistent, that won?t happen.?
Versatility is another strength of the Bluejays.
?We can go big, we can go small,? Ratzlaff said. ?We?re getting to the point where we can play man or we can play zone. If somebody gets hurt, we just throw the next one in the lineup. We do have that kind of a team, for sure.
?It would be nice if some of the guys would just stay healthy so we could get some consistency.?
Another challenge is lack of focus.
?With this group, talent is through the roof,? he said. ?The little things scare me a little bit with this team?and lack of focus. This team really wants to win, but they need to show it.?
Tabor was picked third in the preseason KCAC basketball coaches? poll behind Friends and University of Saint Mary, both of which received votes in the NAIA preseason coaches? Top 25 poll.
Ratzlaff said conference competition should be good this season.
?This year, our conference is probably as good as I?ve ever, ever seen it, talent-wise,? he said. ?Across the board, our conference is loaded with experience, big-time newcomers on each team, size, athleticism.?
Additional teams to watch include Bethany and Sterling, Ratzlaff said.
But he is excited about this group of Bluejays.
?(I) absolutely love being around this team,? he said. ?This team needs to be pushed really hard, and so it?s hard to do that on a consistent basis.
?We?ve got a really good group of guys that have definitely bought in to being a part of Tabor basketball. But we just need them to buy into each other, and it?s going to take some time.?
Tabor is scheduled to open conference play at home Thursday against Kansas Wesleyan. Game time is 8 p.m.