Expectations. Experience. A first-team preseason All-American. A national ranking. A championship to defend.
None of these things were a factor last season for the John Carroll University men’s basketball team. That team made it to the Sweet 16 and set a school record of 21 straight wins.
Now it’s time for the defending Ohio Athletic Conference regular season and tournament champions to start a new streak.
They enter the season ranked second nationally, the highest ranking in school history, behind only the defending national champs, Washington University (St. Louis).
“We have a bullseye on our back,” said senior forward Rudy Kirbus, who is a d3hoops.com first-team preseason All-American.
That wasn’t the case last year when JCU was picked to finish fourth in the conference.
“Last year we came in under the radar, but now everyone has us circled on their schedules. Even though we’re starting at the top, it’s going to be a long uphill battle,” said Kirbus.
Expectations are especially high after losing only Alex Koltsov to graduation. The Blue Streaks return everyone from last year’s team, including all five starters, along with the addition of several freshmen.
JCU welcomes back swingman T.J. DiSanto, who spent last season studying in Italy. He saw sufficient playing time as a freshman and sophomore and adds another perimeter defender as well as another spot up shooter.
Kirbus leads a balanced scoring attack that saw five players average eight points a game or better last season, including seven different leading scorers.
“We just go out and play our game and whoever ends up with the points isn’t really important to us, as long as it’s under JCU on the scoreboard,” said senior swingman Tyler Kirsch.
“We have ten guys that can score 20 points a game, but we’re not going to score 200 points a night, so it’s just a matter of working to find the best shot each time down the court.”
It helps that JCU has arguably the best point guard combination in the OAC with senior Chris Zajac and sophomore Corey Shontz.
The duo combined for 17 points and over five assists per game last season.
Shontz led the conference in three-point percentage, making 48.4 percent. Zajac led the OAC in steals, recording 3.3 a game.
Both guards’ quickness created many turnovers in the press last season that was the main contributor to several crucial wins en route to the OAC championship.
“Our press was really our backbone in every big game last year,” said senior guard Brian Dandrea. “In most cases it got us going on both sides of the court and took away the other teams strengths.”
JCU will need to be able to rely on its press right out of the gate as they have a few tests even before the calendar turns to December.
JCU will travel to Michigan over the weekend to take on Olivet College, before heading to Scranton, Pa. the following weekend for the Scranton tournament.
Perhaps the biggest game on the 2009 part of the schedule is on Nov. 29 when JCU hosts The College of Wooster, ranked ninth in the country.
The Wooster game is also the home opener for the Blue Streaks. The game will tip-off at 3:00 p.m. and could be a preview of an NCAA Tournament game.
Just as JCU will rely on the three-point shooting and full court press that worked for them last year, they will also be taking some old philosophy with them as they head into this season.
“Last season is over,” head coach Mike Moran always tells his players.
“We have to take our work ethic to above where our expectations are. It’s time to get the job done.”