By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Shenandoah University's men's basketball team has certainly fallen on some dark times over the last few seasons.
The Hornets have failed to win more than five games in a season since their 2009-10 campaign -- a year SU went 11-16 -- and Shenandoah's inaugural season as a member of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference last year produced little in terms of on-court success. Shenandoah finished last season with a 4-22 record, including a dismal 1-15 mark in ODAC play. That lone conference win came via forfeit, as Bridgewater College was forced to vacate four wins from a year ago after it was discovered that the Eagles used an ineligible player.
At some point, all of that frustration from continued failure has to build up and produce a fire inside that cues the inevitable turnaround. Shenandoah third-year coach Rob Pryor is hoping that time is now.
"The program has been down for a few years, and I think these guys use that as motivation ... to turn it around and let this be the year that Shenandoah basketball makes progress and is no longer looked at as the doormat or the last team in the league," Pryor said on Wednesday. "That's my hope, that we have a rise to respectability this year."
There certainly is reason for some optimism for Shenandoah this season, if for no other reason than the wealth of returning experience for the Hornets.
Shenandoah didn't have a single senior on last year's roster, and with the exception of the transfer of Sharif Almulla (9.8 points per game as a freshman last season), all of the major pieces for the Hornets return this season.
Combine that with the lessons that Shenandoah drew from competing for the first time in the highly competitive ODAC, and the Hornets like their chances of seeing marked improvement in their second year in the conference.
"What benefits us more than other teams is that we've got everybody coming back, not just a small group of guys," said junior guard Jared Carithers, who led the Hornets with a 13 points-per-game average last season. "Everybody has been through that one year and everybody knows what it takes to be successful in this conference."
Pryor said there has been a noticeable difference in the team's attitude in practice so far this season, as the veteran leadership that Shenandoah lacked last season has emerged on the court in preseason workouts.
The Hornets have three seniors on this year's roster, including guard Bryce Mitchell (6.8 points per game, team-high 32 steals last season) and 6-foot-1 guard Avery Green, who returns this year after missing all but the first nine games of last season due to tendonitis in his knee.
Green led Shenandoah in scoring during his sophomore season, and Pryor said the combination of Green and Carithers gives the Hornets "one of the best backcourts in the ODAC."
Pryor said senior center Kevin Lecsaint (6-foot-7, 210 pounds) has "really improved" and will start in the Hornets' frontcourt, while sophomore guard Jimi Starks -- who started just three games last season and averaged 4.1 points per game -- emerged as a must-start with his play this preseason.
"He's the most athletic guy on our team ... but to kind of rein in his game and fit to what we do has been important for him. And it's finally clicked," Pryor said of the 6-foot-3 Miami native. "He understands what he needs to do, and he brings tremendous energy. We were going to bring him off the bench initially, but he's played so well that we have to start him."
Pryor said the forward spot is still open at this point, with junior Xavier Alston (team-high 5.0 rebounds per game last season) battling freshman C.J. Rudisill, a versatile 6-foot-6 forward, for the starting job.
The Hornets will also have plenty of depth off the bench, with Mitchell, sophomore forward Shaquille Rodney (6.1 ppg.), junior guard and Skyline High School graduate Eli McEathron (5.0 ppg., 43.6 percent from 3-point territory) and junior Dante Seraile (3.3 ppg.) available along with a handful of others.
That depth should allow the Hornets to employ more consistent full-court pressure on defense this season, something that Shenandoah couldn't do as much as Pryor would've liked due to injuries that depleted his roster.
On offense, the Hornets will continue to run its Princeton-style attack, though Pryor said Shenandoah will look to work the transition game as much as possible.
Pryor said the goal is for the Hornets to average somewhere around 75 points per game this season (SU averaged 60.5 points per game last year), and Mitchell said the Hornets are finally all in when it comes to the offensive system that Pryor wants to run.
"One thing that is different from last year is guys have really bought into the system that we run in our offense," Mitchell said. "It's a very unique style of offense, unlike any other. Guys really bought into it ... as a team we've decided not to complain about the offense, but instead incorporate our abilities into the offense. We're really focusing on making it work."
Shenandoah opens its season today with an exhibition game at Division I Campbell University -- a game that should show how well the Hornets respond to adversity -- before officially beginning its regular season next Friday against Methodist in the BB&T Tip-Off Classic.
"I'm looking forward to getting back to it. It seems like we've been away for a while, and when you have the season that we had last year it leaves a bad taste in your mouth," Pryor said. "We really have a lot of energy, enthusiasm and optimism about this season, and we're looking forward to seeing significant improvement."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD