Picked to finish first in both the KCAC coaches? and media preseason polls, the Tabor College men?s basketball team will look to do just that under the direction of eighth-year coach Micah Ratzlaff.
Last year, the Bluejays ended with a 20-13 record after winning the KCAC tournament and advancing to the NAIA national tournament opening round.
Tabor is currently tied for 20th place in the NAIA Division II men?s basketball coaches? preseason poll.
But the team has some new faces this season as it aims to return to the national stage. The Bluejays return two starters from last year, having lost guard Robbie Samuel to graduation, guard D?Marco Smith to an academic credit technicality?he is redshirting this year?and guard/forward Lance Carter to what Ratzlaff called an ?unfortunate situation.?
?We?re a completely different team than we were three weeks ago, so not having guys like Lance Carter and D?Marco Smith is tough because they?re both combo guys,? Ratzlaff said. ?D?Marco can play any guard spot, and Lance Carter can play the 1 through the 5 for us, so we?ve just got to make up for it.
?At the end of the day, we still have enough talent. We?ve just got to believe in ourselves, and we?ve got to believe in each other.?
Despite the losses, Ratz?laff will have an array of weapons at his disposal.
The list begins with returning starters Dewayne Biggs and Andrew Thomas. Both have been named to the KCAC preseason team.
Biggs, a 6-foot senior guard, was named KCAC newcomer of the year last season and received All-KCAC second-team honors. He led the team in scoring last year with 15.6 points per game. He added 87 assists (2.6 per game).
Ratzlaff expects Biggs to contribute at point guard and at wing.
?We?re going to look to him for a lot of leadership,? Ratzlaff said. ?We need him to lead us on both ends of the floor, not just on offense but on defense, too.
?He has the ability to be one of the better guards in our conference, obviously, and just needs to figure out what his role is and connect with the rest of the team.
?We thought we were going to have a lot of guys back, but it really is a pretty new team, so we?re still working on that.?
In six games this season, Biggs has averaged 12.5 points while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Thomas, a 6-7 senior forward, was a second-team All-KCAC pick. He averaged 14.9 points per game and led the team in rebounding at 7.23 per game. He also had a team-high 39 blocks and turned in four double-double performances.
?Obviously, we?re going to need (Andrew) to score on the block,? Ratzlaff said. ?We?re going to need him to be one of the better rebounders in the league, shoot a high percentage and then also help lead this program. We just need him to be consistently good every night.?
Over seven games, Thomas has averaged 14.7 per game on 53 percent shooting.
Senior JT Nemit (5-9) also returns, while junior Chance LeBlanc (5-11) comes back after a redshirt year. The two will join Biggs at the point guard spot.
?Right now we?re playing about five guards, and three of those are point guards,? Ratzlaff said. ?They don?t just play behind each other, we?re rotating them in.?
Sophomore forward Jonathan Gibson (6-8) is another returning weapon.
?(Jonathan) has worked his tail off and has improved as much as anybody in our program,? Ratzlaff said. ?He should be one of the top rebounders in the conference. Very, very solid on the defensive end and starting to really figure out some of the offensive aspects of the game. We?re starting to get a lot more comfortable with him on the floor, which is where we want to be. It?s good to see him have some success.?
Ratzlaff has added some newcomers to the mix.
Junior Malik Brooks, a 5-11 guard, is a transfer from Iowa Central Community College and leads the team in scoring after seven games (16.4 per game) on 43.7 percent shooting. He ranks 11th in NAIA Division II in three-point field goals made per game (3.5) and 12th in three-pointers made (28).
?Malik Brooks is a big-time shooter,? Ratzlaff said. ?He?s been really steady for us. He?s also one of our better defenders, and so we?re going to lean on him for some outside shooting.?
Junior guard Jake Arck (6-2) comes to Tabor from Dakota College at Bottineau, N.D..
?(Jake is an) athletic guard who can really slash, put the ball on the floor, shoot an open shot, but is just a really good guard for us,? Ratzlaff said.
Junior guard/forward Jaylon Sims (6-4) is a transfer from Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania.
?He can shoot it outside, he can put it on the floor a little bit,? Ratzlaff said. ?He can rebound, with a little bit of size at 6-4.?
Freshman Jordan Hor?stick, the brother of Tabor volleyball player Katelin Horstick, is also expected to contribute.
?Jordan can actually do a little bit of everything,? Ratzlaff said. ?He?s a guard who can really shoot it, but can also put it on the floor and make good decisions.?
Meanwhile, joining Thomas at the forward position will be junior John Jedneak (6-6), who comes to Tabor from Central Lakes College in Minnesota.
?John has been in and out of the starting lineup,? Ratz?laff said. ?(He) is really good with his back to the basket but can also step out and shoot the three. He?s going to be a big, huge part of our team this year with putting some size on the floor.?
With the changes in personnel, Ratzlaff has made some changes to the offense.
?We don?t really have that 4-spot like we had with Lance when he could just kind of handle the ball all over the floor,? Ratzlaff said. ?I want to be able to play Jonathan Gibson and Andrew Thomas at the same time. In our other offense, it was tough to do that.?
While Tabor?s offensive strategy is still fairly new, Ratzlaff said the team is headed in the right direction, and the change has been seen as positive.
?Our guys love it, which is a big deal,? he said. ?If your team believes in it, that?s a big part of it. I think offense will be fairly consistent by the time we get to conference.?
Defensively, the Bluejays are still ironing out some rough spots.
?We have a challenge on our hands defensively, but with our skill-set and our talent, there should be no issues if these guys would just focus,? Ratzlaff said.
Moving forward, it will be important for the team to establish an identity.
?We?ve got to find out who we are offensively, but most importantly, defensively, by the time conference rolls around,? he said.
In addition to Tabor, top KCAC teams to watch include Ottawa, Saint Mary and Sterling, Ratzlaff said, adding that he anticipates improvement from the teams in the bottom half of the conference.
To prepare for KCAC play, Ratzlaff has lined up a tough non-conference schedule. Tabor started the season with a 2-5 record, including a two-point and a six-point loss to 12th-ranked NAIA Divi?sion I opponent Oklahoma Baptist. But Ratzlaff said it will only make the Bluejays stronger for conference play.
If the Bluejays can learn from these early games and continue to grow, Ratzlaff has high expectations for how far they can go.
?I expect nothing but a conference championship,? Ratzlaff said. ?There?s no doubt in my mind that these guys have the ability to get something like that done, but they?re going to have to dig down and sacrifice some egos and really figure out the defensive end if we?re going to get there.?
Tabor will kick off conference play at Southwestern Thursday at 8 p.m. The Bluejays will host their first home game of the season when Friends comes to town Saturday at 7 p.m.