EMMITSBURG -- With all its returning talent, Mount St. Mary's is justified in boasting a bit about its chances to win the Northeast Conference basketball title.
None of last season's starters is gone. Players who produced almost 90 percent of the offense are back.
In a guard-oriented league, the Mountaineers have an outstanding backcourt in juniors Chris McGuthrie and Riley Inge. The NEC's top bench player, senior forward Michael Watson, is primed for a big senior year.
And sophomore center Randy Edney, whose season-ending (P knee injury sent the team into a nosedive last season, is healthy again.
But no one in Emmitsburg is making big promises about Mount St. Mary's season, the byproduct of past disappointments. Instead, the approach is one of guarded optimism.
Legendary coach Jim Phelan, in his 41st year, expects to contend for the NEC championship, but is grateful preseason polls have not put championship pressure on the team.
"As long as we're not picked on top, it's fine," said Phelan. "But I'm not worrying about where we're picked before the season."
"We just don't know how good we are," said top scorer McGuthrie, who will concentrate on being a shooter after filling in at point guard until Riley Inge became eligible at midterm last season.
"We're really looking to beat Rider and Monmouth [the two teams generally chosen ahead of Mount St. Mary's], but we haven't proven anything yet."
The Mountaineers were apparently headed for big things last January when they beat the NEC's three premier teams -- Monmouth, Rider and Robert Morris -- in succession to enter February with an 11-8 record, including 7-4 in the league.
Then Edney went down and so did the record. Mount St. Mary's stumbled through the stretch at 3-6 (2-5 in the NEC) and the promise evaporated.
"That affected us a lot," McGuthrie said. "Randy is so important to our defense. At the time, we didn't realize how important."
In preseason practice, Phelan attempted to inspire Edney by demoting him to the second team after what the coach considered some lackluster workouts.
"Nagging injuries have slowed him up," said Phelan. "But he'll be all right. He's starting to get mad, and I kind of think that will do it."
Said McGuthrie: "[Edney] hasn't had the best preseason. But when he went to the second team, it motivated him. Randy is really playing well now."
McGuthrie, who became only the fourth Mount player to score 1,000 points in his first two seasons, should flourish at shooting guard if he can raise his field-goal percentage (38.2 last season) by a few points.
That's because Inge is now familiar with the system after becoming eligible for the second semester a year ago. Inge was recruited by the likes of Florida State and Providence while at Paint Branch High School in Montgomery County, but didn't manage the necessary 700 score on his Scholastic Assessment Test.
He went to San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College, instead, but left before his first season began. He didn't play his first game for the Mount until Dec. 18, 1993, but still led the NEC in assists (5.9), and made the all-newcomer team.
"I don't think he was fully ready to play after missing a whole season," said McGuthrie. "That wasn't the way I remembered him playing from high school. I think Riley is going to be a lot better."
Watson, a great leaper, can dominate a game although he is only 6 feet 4. An experiment with starting him did not produce the desired result last season, and he is back in the role in which he has prospered.
An All-NEC second-team honoree with McGuthrie, Watson averaged 14.1 points and was fourth in the NEC in rebounding and second in field-goal percentage and blocks.
The supporting cast is pretty good, as well. Junior guard Jeff Balistrere brings solid defense, and the vastly improved Sefton Robinson, a senior, will back up Inge at the point and split time with Balistrere at the third guard.
Senior Matt Meakin, 6-9 and 235 pounds, supplies more bulk when the Mountaineers encounter bigger teams and needs only consistency to be a major factor.
And Phelan said: "We kind of got what we needed" from recruitment in 6-6 Michael Brown, who likes to run the floor, and 6-9 Gerden Van Dorpe, a Belgian import with a solid shooting touch.
"Van Dorpe will give us a little different look because he's a good scorer," said Phelan. "He's too light for his position and we're under no illusions that he won't get pushed around some, but we'll get some muscle on him eventually."
Balistrere will be attending his brother's wedding when the Mountaineers open at Penn State Friday, so Robinson probably will get the start.
That launches a nonleague schedule that seems a little easier than the team has been accustomed to playing and includes a home game with Phelan's alma mater, La Salle, to end December.
"It's the first time we've played them since I've been here," said Phelan, who was an honorable mention All-American with the Explorers in 1951. "They want to put a picture of me in my old La Salle uniform on the game program."
Gone from the schedule for this season is the Mount Holiday Tournament, but it will return next year in the form of a season-opening event.
There is no fever among a team that has been selected to finish higher in the NEC than in any of its previous five years in the conference.
Two-time champ Rider has solid returning players in Charles Smith and Deon Hames. Monmouth lost only one key player.
But if Edney stays well, Mount St. Mary's can come at opponents with a diverse set of weapons.
"We didn't lose much except a couple of [bad] attitudes," McGuthrie said. "I think we're all on the same page now. It's time for us to be steady and pick it up."