Mount St. Mary's began last season hoping to make an impact in the Northeast Conference, but by the end of a dismal season -- and with no tournament to shoot for -- the only impact the Mountaineers made was in padding their opponents' win columns.
"It was frustrating, especially as the season wore on," said senior forward Jeff Hall of the team that lost its last six in finishing 8-19. "It got down to a feeling of 'Let's get the season over with.' "
There will be no going through the motions for the Mountaineers this year. Entering its fourth year in Division I, Mount St. Mary's will be eligible for the first time to play for the NEC tournament title -- and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that goes with it. With the possibility of getting a shot at March Madness by winning four games at the end of the season, the Mountaineers promise to be focused for the entire campaign, which will begin Saturday at Maryland.
"The incentive is finally there," Hall said. "The tournament this year will change the attitude all the way around. I think we have the talent to come out on top."
Before the Mountaineers start the NCAA tournament chant of "We want Duke," they must replace the top three scorers last year: John Miller (13.8 points per game), Scott Murphy (12.0) and Alex Watson (11.8). Add the fact that the inside game was virtually non-existent, and it would seem the Mountaineers have serious problems.
But the man who should help the Mount and coach Jim Phelan (who has 687 career wins) turn the corner is junior guard Kevin Booth, who received a medical redshirt last season after suffering a dislocated left kneecap in the second game. Booth had opened the season with a 29-point effort at Xavier, and had already established himself as a scorer with a 18.5 scoring average as a freshman.
"Injuries are a part of the game, and watching the kind of season we had last year was frustrating," Booth said. "I'm always anxious going into a year, but after sitting out I'm even more anxious."
Additional guaranteed scoring will come from Hall, a 6-foot-6 forward who averaged 10.9 points and 3.6 rebounds while coming off the bench most of the season. Hall, called "Mr. Consistency" by Phelan, will most likely step into a starting role.
Sophomore guard Dave Kapaona should see a lot of minutes at the point, where he started 20 games last season after replacing Booth. What really has Phelan happy is the improvement and the depth of his frontcourt. Seven-foot senior Chris Cavanagh (6.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) looked lost at times in his 16 starts at center, but Phelan said that, judging from preseason drills, "his coordination has caught up with his size."
If Cavanagh can't do the job, freshman Joe Gower may be the answer. At 6-7 and 250 pounds, Gower possesses good shooting range that allows him to play all three frontcourt positions. But he'll probably start the season at power forward and could find himself playing some center.
"He has the potential to be one of those special players," Phelan said. "He's kind of different in that he gives us an inside threat we haven't had in a long time. He thinks he's a very good outside scorer, but with his bulk and size we're going to argue about that -- and he's not going to win."
Additional frontcourt help should come from 6-4 senior defensiv specialist Bobby Hill, 6-7 power forward Anthony Carr, 6-8 junior Dave Nanni and 6-4 freshman forward Michael Watson.
"The ballhandling is there, we have size, and we have a little bit of inside scoring," Phelan said. "We think we fit in well with the league."
And that should get Phelan to yet another milestone this year: 700 wins. Only seven other coaches have reached it. North Carolina's Dean Smith, who did it in February, was the last.
"We should be a major factor in our conference," said Phelan, who coached his 1,000th game last season and was nominated for the Basketball Hall of Fame last month. "We have enough good players to be extremely competitive."