Head men's basketball coach Kirby Dean acknowledged that there are two different philosophies when it comes to scheduling a season. The first option is to schedule games that translate to a winning record from the start. The second option values scheduling opponents that will challenge and prepare a team to peak at the right time, which in turn, could deflate the number of victories within a single season.
Without a doubt, Dean goes with the latter of the two philosophies in an effort to maximize his squad's potential, not only in the heart of conference play but also in hopes of a run in postseason play.
When it comes to basketball in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference there are no easy or obvious wins, and with the Runnin Royals picking up top non-conference opponents, this year's schedule is primed to have EMU playing some of its best basketball come February.
The men will kick off their season this coming Wednesday, with the hope around Harrisonburg that Dean's squad can move forward following a season that was considered less than successful.
EMU, which finished with a 10-16 record a year ago, returns five seniors, including one All-ODAC player, from a team that finished fourth in the league with a shooting percentage of 44.3%, just behind Roanoke, Lynchburg, and Emory & Henry.
"Obviously we didn't reach our goals in the 2016-17 season," said Dean. "At the end of the day it was not the season we wanted it to be, so from that standpoint we'll put that in the review mirror and move on."
For that to happen, the Royals will need to get some impressive wins in their non-conference slate before opening the bulk of ODAC play come January 3.
Eight of the first ten games are scheduled against teams who made respective runs in their conferences last season, including Delaware Valley, Hood and Averett.
"There's not a 'gimme' game out there because each opponent we play is a legitimate, solid team so we have to be at our best," said Dean.
The Royals had several injuries last season that prohibited impact players from contributing. Paramount to the team's fortunes will be the tandem health of juniors Sammy Thomas (Owings, Md./Northern) and Christian Hansen (Manassas Park, Va./Osbourn Park) along with senior Maleke Jones (Charles Town, W.V./Washington), who each saw fewer minutes than expected last year due to injuries.
The projected starting five is still to be determined, but includes looks from Travis Clower (Romney, W.V/Hampshire), RaShawn Latimer (Warrenton, Va./Kettle Run), Jerome Jones (Charles Town, W.V./Washington), Isaiah Harris-Winn (Frederick, Md./St. Maria Goretti), Xavier McCants (Olney, Md./Sherwood), as well as Thomas, Hansen and Maleke Jones.
"We have veterans that have played in this league for three years now so they know what it takes to win, which has to be considered a positive for us," Dean said of his returners. "We've been young for the past few years so returning those veterans is something we need to take advantage of."
As if the host of experience wasn't enough, EMU brought in a bounty of athleticism in an eight-man freshman class, including DJ Hill (Woodbridge, Va./Hylton) and Tim Jones Jr. (Forestville, Md./Central) who are expected to contribute right away.
"As these guys adjust to the collegiate game, specifically the speed and pace, they are anticipated to contribute early and in significant ways," Dean said of his recruiting class.
However, EMU is not the only team to bring back a wealth of experience, as most ODAC teams were young last season. In order to match and exceed those opponents the Runnin Royals plan to keep up their high-scoring, up-tempo style of play.
"We're not changing the basis of our game," explained Dean, "but we are looking to improve defensively, specifically by tightening the screws on our full-court press."
The good news for the Royals is that they boast one of the deepest rosters of talent in the program's recent history. Dean stated, "The fact that we are a talented team and were picked lower in the preseason poll shows the amount of quality teams in the ODAC. This year will prove to be a dogfight but I believe we can finish higher than ninth."
Eastern Mennonite opens against the University of Mary Washington on Wednesday, Nov. 15 at 8:00pm. The date is a doubleheader with EMU's women, who host Lancaster Bible College that evening at 5:30pm.