The men’s basketball team has a little bit more swagger this season.
Last year’s Atlantic Ten Conference title and subsequent NCAA Tournament appearance put the Owls back on the national stage. But success is short-lived in a conference filled with Musketeers, Hawks, Minutemen and plenty of other predators who are all ready to pounce.
“It feels like there is a target on our backs now,” senior guard Semaj Inge said. “When we play against the other conference teams, they’re going to play harder just because they know we won it last year. And they want what we got right now.”
The Cherry and White finished off last season 21-13 (11-5 in the A-10) and return the conference’s most prominent player in senior guard Dionte Christmas. The co-captain, all-American candidate and Most Outstanding Player of the 2008 A-10 Tournament has led the conference in scoring the past two seasons.
“He has to be our leading scorer again,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “I think the concern is there are going to be games where he may not be, and who else is going to pick up the pieces if he is not?”
The loss of venerable spark plug Mark Tyndale leaves a gaping hole in the Owls’ lineup and just under 16 points per game to account for. While Christmas will attract the brunt of opposing defenses this year, it will be up to a strong supporting cast to get open and hit key shots.
Running the point will most likely be junior guard Luis Guzman. The Bronx, N.Y., native averaged just 3.9 points per game last season but found his way into the starting lineup in part because of his playmaking ability.
Last year’s undisputed sixth man, junior guard Ryan Brooks, is now this year’s undisputed starter. He was third in scoring at 8.6 ppg in 2007-2008 and provided an impressive showing at the NCAA Tournament with 14 points.
“I try to be consistent because I expect how I play in practice is going to translate into the game,” Brooks said. “There’s a lot more confidence in this team. We know how it feels to win. We know how it feels to have a certain amount of success.”
For the first time in a long time, it appears the Owls will have a couple of credible options on the interior. Senior Sergio Olmos and sophomore Lavoy Allen both made remarkable strides offensively and defensively late last season. Olmos had career highs with 5.8 ppg, a 56.3 shooting percentage and 49 blocks. Allen averaged 8.1 ppg and led the team in blocks with 52.
“I think [Lavoy] understands that he’s pretty good. Now, I want him to understand that he can really be great, and that’s the next step to him. That’s the next part of his evolution as a basketball player,” Dunphy said.
The Owls will need bench players to take on crucial roles and soak up important minutes this season.
Inge and freshman guard Ramone Moore will be sharing time with Guzman at the guard position. At 6-feet-11-inches tall, freshman center Micheal Eric will be adding a unique dynamic to the floor. His combination of length, quickness and shooting ability will make life difficult for opposing coaches. If Olmos gets in foul trouble, look for Eric to plant himself in the paint.
“He’s a big man that can run the floor,” Brooks said. “He keeps up with many of the guards when we’re sprinting, when we’re conditioning. He brings a lot of energy, and he’s extremely athletic.”
Last year, the Owls were temporarily crippled by a poor 0-3 start. This season, they look to avoid the same fate when they open up play on Friday against East Tennessee State at the Charleston Classic.
The home opener is slated for Dec. 3 against Miami (Ohio). From there, the road gets bumpy with back-to-back games against national powerhouses Tennessee and Kansas. The Owls will also tip off against city rival Villanova on Dec. 29 before handling the A-10 portion of their schedule.
The Owls look to emulate their early-century glory days, when they won back-to-back A-10 Championships and reached the Elite Eight in 2001. With confidence and passion once again surging on North Broad Street, it’s time for the games to begin.
Anthony Stipa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.