By BRIAN ROSE
BETHANY - The Bethany men, with five of their top six scorers returning from a PAC Championship team, appear primed and ready to make another run at a conference championship with the additional goal of making a run into the NCAA Tournament.
The Bison return 82 percent of their scoring from a squad that set a single-season record for victories by finishing 25-4. Bethany won the PAC regular season title, then swept through the league playoffs to claim its conference-record 14th PAC title and earn an eighth bid to the NCAA Tournament.
With so much coming back from a highly successful team, as well as eight newcomers that should make BC a far deeper team, the Bison have gained some preseason attention. The Green and White ranked first among Others Receiving Votes in the D3Hoops.com Preseason Top 25 poll and were picked first in the PAC preseason poll. Fourth-year coach Andrew Sachs, who has a 65-21 overall record and a .756 winning percentage that is the highest in program history, says his team welcomes the raised expectations this year.
"Practices this year are the most competitive since I've been here," Sachs said. "That is because we are significantly deeper in the backcourt. However, that depth with the freshmen and transfers is inexperienced, so the new guys still have a learning curve for how we play.
"We embrace the high expectations and kind of knew where they would be when the semester started. The biggest issue you can face is complacency, but the returners have had to stay sharp with the newcomers nipping at their heels. We've improved every year I've been here and we want to continue that.
The improvement might not be in our record, but in winning a third straight PAC championship and going to the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year, which has never been done here.
While the Bison do bring back a lot, there will be a big hole in the middle to fill. Two-time First Team All-PAC selection British Alexander, who blocked 122 shots in two seasons in Green and White, completed his eligibility last spring, so filling those shoes will be a challenge for Sachs.
''What British did for us will be very hard to replace," Sachs said.
While the post may be a position of concern early, one spot the Bison feel good about is point guard. Senior Reece Mabery was a second team All-PAC choice last year after he finished second on the team in scoring (13.7), assists (2.8) and steals (2.7). In two seasons, he has risen to fifth in Bethany history with 159 steals. He'll be backed up by a pair of transfers in 6-foot junior Lawrence Weldon and 5-11 sophomore David Butcherto.
"This is the deepest the point guard spot has been since I've been here," Sachs said. "Reece is an all-conference player with Lawrence and David behind him. They each bring something different to the table, but the one thing they all bring is they can defend.
"They are very quick, can get in passing lanes and are a solid group."
The wing spots will be occupied by seniors Nick Wilcox and James Barton. Despite playing with an injury for much of last season, Wilcox was last year's PAC Player of the Year after averaging 14.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.2 steals per game. He enters the season as the program's all-time leader in steals (224) and ranked 17th in scoring (1,128). Barton averaged 13.1 points per game and is third in Bethany history in free throw percentage (84.6) and 10th in career 3-pointers (135).
Behind those two is a group of athletic newcomers who will make the Bison a deeper squad on the wing than in years past. Junior transfers Tyrone Smothers and Devon Braswell join the program for their first season, while 6-4 freshman Alan Harper, 5-10 freshman Tommy Junkin and 6-1 sophomore Delonte Joyce, who played in 18 games a season ago for BC, are vying for time.
"Nick is the returning Player of the Year in the conference and what few people know is he played the last 20 games last season with a broken thumb," Sachs said. "He had it taken care of in the offseason, but because of that, he is still getting back into shape now. James is one of our best 3-point shooters and one of the best in the conference.
"We expect to be deeper at the wing spots. Tyrone and Devon are transfers who will compete for time and Tyrone can play some at the three. Alan is a freshman who is really long and athletic. Tommy adds depth and can shoot it pretty well and Delonte adds depth at the wing as well. (Red-shirt freshman) Aaron Ashley can play wing if necessary as well.
"We did take a loss when (freshman) Cody Miller suffered an injury and will have to sit out the season, so that hurts us some," Sachs said.
At the four, Bethany will look for continued improvement from junior Leslie Addy. He started 27 games last season and the athletic 6-5 forward averaged 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds while showing flashes of dominance. The first man off the BC bench this year will again be senior Brady Pacific. A career 43.2 percent 3-point shooter, Pacific settled into his sixth-man role nicely and averaged 11.9 points per game.
Behind them is Ashley, who was at Bethany last year but sat out the season because of injury. He'll be another sharpshooter in Sachs' arsenal this season and make the Bison very deep at the four.
"In our system, the four is more of a face-up player and we feel we have three pretty good ones," Sachs said. "Leslie plays with a ton of energy, had a good summer in the weight room and we hope he can take that next step. Brady is instant offense off the bench and is right there with James (Barton) as one of our best 3-point shooters. And behind those two is Aaron as one of our best shooters as well."
Charged with the assignment of trying to fill in for Alexander at the five spot is 6-6 freshman Nate Weldon and 6-5 junior transfer Kevin Jackson. The duo will provide a nice contrast in styles and Sachs hopes to deploy those skill sets to offset the strengths of opposing teams.
"Our success will depend on Nate's and Kevin's development," Sachs said. "Nate is really long, plays with a ton of energy and can block shots. Kevin brings something different in that he's a little more skilled around the basket with a thicker frame."
The higher expectations haven't changed what the program's aims are coming into the season. Since Sachs took the reins to the Bison, he has always stated he wants his teams to win the PAC and not only make the NCAA Tournament, but win games in it. With the normal rugged conference matchups, as well as tough non-conference road games on the schedule, Bethany expects to be primed for playoff basketball.
If the Bison are to reach those goals, Sachs says the development of the new post players will be critical, as well as improving on their rebounding and limiting team's shooting percentages. Even with the higher expectations, Sachs says his team is prepared for the challenge ahead.
"We can reach our goals if Nate and Kevin develop through the season, we do a much better job on the boards than we have in our scrimmages and we hold teams under 40 percent shooting," Sachs said. "We should keep our scoring balanced and we don't need 20 points a night from a certain guy.
"Continuing to improve from last year and reaching our goals will be hard to do with the expectations," Sachs said. "We know we are going to get every team's best shot every night. But it's better to be on this side of it than to be the hunter."