The run back to March Madness begins Saturday at 7:30 PM.
At least that's what Coach Jason Hooten and his Sam Houston State Bearkats are hoping to work toward.
You have to start somewhere, and for the Bearkats, that is against the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders. UMHB is a D-III program, but don't expect the Bearkats to use this game as a championship victory lap coming off of last season.
When facing a lower division opponent, the Bearkats are expected to roll easily to victory, but I can't imagine this group taking this game lightly. With so many new faces and so much senior leadership, this team will be hungry.
Beyond that, the Crusaders are a good team. Last season, they finished with a 22-7 record and qualified for the D-III basketball championship. They return their three leading scorers from last season in senior guard Dean Pele, senior forward Theo Ard and junior guard Sterling Phillips. These three averaged 15.8, 12.6, and 10.8 points, respectively. Ard was also their top rebounder last season with 7.5 rebounds per game.
As good as UMHB is, the Bearkats have a history of putting these teams away like they should. Last season, they beat their lower-division opponents by the combined score of 320-191.
If the game does turn out to be lopsided, which I think most figure it will be, there still won't be any shortage of things to look for.
The first thing I'll be interested to see is how Hooten spreads out the minutes. I expect in this game he will want to get everyone in there to at least get their feet wet. The rotation on Saturday will look nothing like it will at the start of conference play, but it can give you some hints as to how Hooten would like the rotation to look.
If a player finds himself getting 20 or more minutes off the bench, it probably says that Hooten would like him to be a big part of the rotation. On the other hand, if you see a player buried on the bench already, it probably doesn't bode well for his usage later in the season.
Something else to look for is who will split minutes with Drae Murray at the point guard position. Murray is someone I really like if he is getting between 20-25 minutes and is looked at to push the tempo.
If any more is expected of him, I start to like him a lot less. I feel like Murray needs someone to share minutes with that gives you some things that he doesn't. Specifically, you would like to find someone who can defend bigger guards and bring the ball up in the half-court offense to slow the pace down.
While this can't be decided in a single game, someone will have to get those minutes in the opener.
Just going over the roster, Byron Randle looks like the obvious choice to fill the void. At 6'3", he certainly has the size you want. His accolades as all-state, first team all-district, and team MVP fit the bill of the mature leader that you want to step in at point guard. Look for him to get significant minutes at the point, splitting time with Murray.
I will also be looking to see who will be finding their own shot and fill the scoring void left with the departure of Ashton Mitchell and Corey Allmond.
Will the offense now run exclusively through Gilberto Clavell? Will Murray and Lance Pevehouse increase their shots, and more specifically, their three point shots? Will a newcomer to the roster step into a big role immediately?
In a season opener, there is usually a lot of focus on running the fundamentals of the offense and getting comfortable with each other. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see whose plays are drawn up for when Hooten turns to their set plays.
UMHB has depth and size in the frontcourt that is not typical for a D-III team. They have two post players in Michael Archa and Taylor Finley that both stand 6'8". There are several forwards that stand 6'6" or 6'7".
This won't be a cake walk for Gilberto Clavell. He is going to have to work to get baskets inside and that's good for the Bearkats. They have games against the likes of Texas Longhorns, Houston Cougars, and North Texas Mean Green coming up on the schedule. Having to fight down low in these earlier games will prepare him for those battles later on.
As for the outcome of the game, I don't think there is much doubt. I expect the Bearkats to handle the Crusaders with ease.
Don't be shocked, though, if this one doesn't end up being particularly high scoring. When trying to incorporate new pieces in the rotation, there will be times when the offense looks a little sloppy. Nerves from some of the newcomers will lead to some deferring and some bad shots. It's all a part of the process.
Coming off of the excitement from last season, I think I speak for all of us when I say it's great to have basketball back.