Coach Kirby Dean and the Runnin Royals have a set base of talented returning players to begin the 2016-17 season.
With a team that returns everybody, Dean is confident that his group of players can compete with anybody in the talented ODAC.
The Royals finished 11-14 last year, but the team was full of youth. With the experience under their belts, they look to finish higher.
"We had a lot of growing to do last year, and we did a lot of growing," Dean said on his 2015-16 team comprised solely of freshmen and sophomores. "We were 6-10 in the ODAC, and we had four one-possession games, so we could have flipped our record easily. So while we weren't thrilled, we came out of the year feeling optimistic about our team heading into the future."
There are a few changes to the game plan in place for the Royals under Coach Dean, although the team will still keep the same mindset alive.
"We're going to put on more ball pressure and deny in the passing lanes, fronting the post and just turning it up defensively," Dean explained. "We're going to try to do that without having the other team live on the foul line. Offensively we're still going to try to get out and run on every possession, and when we get in the halfcourt we'll run some motion offense and we've added some Princeton cuts."
After being so young in 2015-16, Dean is now enjoying a roster loaded with returners, giving him comfort in the way that the team will grow over the season.
"To have the continuity of all 15 players from last year is something I've never experienced," Dean added. "Practice has been so much smoother simply because guys know the drills and know what we're doing in practice. I don't think there's any way that that's not a really strong positive moving forwards when you have so many guys who have spent one year, and most of them two, in the program."
This year's Royals strike a resemblance to the 2009-10 Elite Eight team in terms of returning players. While the Elite Eight Royals were picked fourth in the preseason poll that year, Dean doesn't believe that there is much difference between this year's team and his NCAA Tournament team.
"I don't want to say we are as talented as that team, but the chasm isn't as wide as you might think. If we can further develop our chemistry, we have the chance to be a very, very good team," Dean stated on the similarity.
Returning All-ODAC Third Team junior Isaiah Harris-Winn (Frederick, Md./St. Maria Goretti) led the offensive charge for the Royals in scoring last year at 14.7ppg along with 5.9rpg, but Dean looks him to improve even further.
"Obviously he was our leading scorer last year, but I think he's the type of kid that he could score less this year and still have a better year," Dean said. "He's going to get his points, he's that talented offensively, but I would like to see him improve his game defensively and on the glass. If he can do those two things, he goes from being an All-ODAC Third Team guy to being considered for First Team."
Point guard Maleke Jones (Charles Town, W.V./Washington) started all 25 games for the Royals last year, despite an ankle injury during the season. He looks to be a staple in the Royals' offense this year in an improved fashion. He averaged 9.8 points with team highs of 3.4 assists and 43.6% shooting from three point range.
"Last year Maleke was on his way to being one of the best guards in the league until he rolled his ankle. We are expecting him to be healthy this year and continue that trajectory," Dean said.
Much like his twin brother, junior wing Jerome Jones (Charles Town, W.V./Washington) was hampered with a wrist injury last year, but played significant minutes for EMU last year. He shot 38.7% from outside and was second on the team with 12.6ppg.
"Jerome was another player who got hurt, which a lot of people didn't realize. He hurt his wrist and it really affected his shot, which is the strongest part of his game. So we're looking for him to be healthy this year," Dean stated.
RaShawn Latimer (Warrenton, Va./Kettle Run) started 20 games last season, and was third for Eastern Mennonite with 10.7ppg.
"RaShawn was very up and down last year, but when he is on he can be the best player on the team. He needs to find consistency," Dean added on the junior.
At center, Sammy Thomas (Owings, Md./Northern) was solid in his first year, averaging 5.0 points and 5.9 rebounds. Dean has seen big strides in Thomas and expects the big man to make a significant impact this year.
"Sammy is our most improved player," Dean stated on the sophomore center. "His body has improved tremendously since he got to EMU. Last year he showed some flashes of what he is capable of. Now he can run up and down the floor with much more consistency and would be my candidate for break-out player of the year."
Dean's expects those five to again be his starters.
Off the bench, there will be some new faces along with some experience.
Sophomore wing Xavier McCants (Olney, Md./Sherwood) saw around 18 minutes per game last season off the bench while starting five. Dean looks to add to his experience this year.
"He was instant energy off the bench last year," Dean said on McCants. "We'll still need to do that, but there will be times when he'll need to play more extended minutes."
Travis Clower (Romney, W.V./Hampshire) looks to show his improvement in his overall game this upcoming season.
"Travis has had a great preseason as he has added some weight and been better defensively," Dean stated. "We knew he was a shooter coming in. A lot of times those type of players can be up and down in their first year, but this year he's been consistently good. His role will continue to expand, especially if he continues to shoot the ball the way he has in the preseason."
Khalil Davis (Harrisonburg, Va./Spotswood), a sophomore guard, played in all 25 games for the Royals last season while starting two.
On Davis, Dean said "he played some key minutes last year and we're hopeful he can continue to build on that in his sophomore year."
Dean is looking towards freshman forward Josh Good (Luray, Va./Luray) to give the Royals some significant minutes in his young career.
"It's not every day you get a 6-6 kid in this league who can dribble, shoot and pass," he explained. "We just need him to improve his strength, so he can be a better rebounder and defender, because his offensive game is on point."
Juniors Tariq Caldwell (Richmond, Va./Lee-Davis) and Christian Hansen (Manassas Park, Va./Osbourn Park) have been saddled with offseason injuries, while Dean cites Darryl Christian (Forest, Va./Brookville) and Mark Loving (Woodford, Va./Caroline) as returners who could see expanded roles.
Aside from their ODAC schedule, the Royals will match up with some tough non-conference teams while playing NCAA D1 James Madison University again on December 28.
"It's always exciting to play a division one team. It definitely gives you something to motivate you to be the best you can be to avoid being embarrassed in your home town," Dean said on playing the Dukes for the second straight year. "They're obviously going to be very good. But we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The goal is to be better when walk off the floor than when we walked on it, and if we go in there and play with passion and play as a team, we have a chance to do that."
The Royals were picked eighth in the ODAC Preseason Poll, but EMU's coach is confident that his Royals can finish higher.
"We were picked eighth which is fair, but we have the ability to finish much higher than that," Dean added. "If we come together and each kid plays their role, we have the ability to play with anybody in our league. If that all comes together, we like to think that come February we can be as good as anybody in the ODAC."
After playing an exhibition against select alumni from the 2009-15 teams today at 4pm, the Runnin Royals officially open the season on the road, taking on talented Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., on Tuesday. The men host the EMU Tip-Off Invitational next Friday and Saturday, welcoming Methodist and Gallaudet.