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Men’s Basketball: Reaching their ceiling at the right time

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On paper, it looks like the Runnin Royals have their work cut out for them this season.  While they do have to replace three of their top four scorers, Coach Kirby Dean feels he has a deeper basketball team this year.

“Our overall numbers are down, but I think we’ll actually play more guys,” said Dean.  “I think 11 or 12 of our guys are going to play minutes, so you could make the argument that we’re deeper.  And talent-wise it probably is.  We’re going to run more and shoot a lot more threes.”

EMU’s roster is only 14 deep in 2013-14, after starting with 18 or more in previous years.

Headlining the returners is the lone senior, RJ Sims (Fort Washington, Md./Friendly), an All-ODAC Third Team selection last year.  The 6-5 wing was second on the team and 11th in the ODAC in scoring as a junior with 13.6 points.  The stat-stuffer added 3.9 rebounds and team highs of 2.2 assists and 1.7 steals.

James Williams (Capitol Heights, Md./Archbishop Carroll) took over a starting role late last season, and the 6-2 junior has become a step quicker and will look for more minutes in the guard court.  He scored 5.0 points a game last year and quietly shot 48% from long range.  Junior David Falk (Madison, Va./Madison) steps into the starting position down low, as the 6-6 big man was good for 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds last year.  He was also tied for second in the ODAC last season with 1.7 blocks per game.

Wing Ryan Yates (Alexandria, Va./T.C. Williams) started 13 games last year, and brings back his 6-7 frame along with 6.8 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals.  Other returning juniors are 6-2 Woody Furbush (Bridgeton, N.J./Salem), 6-6 Trey Barrett (Damascus, Md./Damascus) and 6-4 Nic Sulc (Prince George, Va./Prince George).

Dean said that group has really stepped up their game this year.

“That junior class is where I’ve seen the most improvement,” he said.  “Woody is ready to give us some level of production, and all of those guys look like they’ve made some really good improvements.”

The junior class will not only help replace the points lost from last year’s team, but also the intangibles, especially from four-year players Andrew Thorne and Owen Longacre.

“I think other guys were influenced by playing with them, and think I’ve seen that already,” Dean said of losing Thorne and Longacre.  “Ryan Yates has been more vocal and has stepped into a leadership role.  And when you’re one of the hardest workers like he is, people are a little more apt to listen to you even if it’s kind of critical.  But it will be hard to replace those guys.”

Eastern Mennonite also adds two junior transfers, Chris Yoder (Lancaster, Pa./Hempfield) and Marcel Crump (Richmond, Va./Highland Springs).  The 6-4 Yoder averaged 8.1 points in two years at D-III Messiah College (2009-11) before coming to Harrisonburg last year; however, he tore an ACL in his first practice last fall and missed the season.  Crump, another 6-4 wing, scored 5.7 points at D-II Virginia Union last year.  Dean had high praise for both players.

“We would have won 18 or 20 games last year if Chris wouldn’t have gotten injured, he’s that good of a shooter,” explained Dean.  “But he does more than just that, he can jump, he can run and he’s very competitive.  And Marcel is on par with Andrew Thorne athletically.  He instantly becomes one of the best athletes in our league.  If he gets a handle on what Drew brought competitively he’ll be better than him.”

Although there are no sophomores on the team this year, a recruiting class of five talented freshmen expects to see playing time as well: 6-1 Ryan Bush (Columbiana, Ohio/Salem), 6-2 EJ Baltimore (Bristow, Va./Patriot), 6-4 Kendall Hawkins (Charlottesville, Va./Albemarle), 6-4 Kwa McDonald (Frederick, Md./Tuscarora), and 6-3 Nick Fleming (Upper Marlboro, Md./Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr.).

“I think all of the freshmen are going to play,” explained Dean.  “Kwa and EJ are at positions of need, so that will increase their minutes.  But all of those guys are physically and mentally ready to make some contributions now.”

The Runnin Royals lost five of the nine men in their regular rotation last year, and replacing all the minutes, points and rebounds will take some time to figure out in 2013-14.

“I think it’s going to have to be a collective effort from a bunch of different guys,” Dean explained.  “I don’t think we have one guy who will night in and night out be our leading scorer.  But any of starting five, and even our sixth man, could be a leading scorer on any given night.  We’ll be hard to scout because on any given night any of those guys could really hurt you.  By spreading things out we can overcome that loss.”

The Runnin Royals open their season on the road, playing at a tip-off tournament hosted by Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., this Saturday and Sunday.  Their first game is against Staten Island, and it will be the first of nine contests against a team which qualified for the NCAA National Tournament last spring.

While Dean knows that his schedule will be a big challenge for a team still getting used to each other, he also knows it could work as a positive.

“It can work for you or against you,” he said.  “If it kills your confidence to lose to really good teams, then it hurts, but if you can be competitive and steal a couple of wins your guys could look around and say, ‘we could play with anybody.’  I make sure the guys understand the level of competition they are playing against.  I’ll expect to go in and win.  And a lot of times a middle of the pack ODAC is a really good team.  Hopefully that helps us.”

As usual, the Old Dominion Athletic Conference expects to be one of the toughest, most-balanced leagues in the nation.  But with only seven of the 18 All-ODAC honorees from last year returning around the conference, 2013-14 has potential to produce a lot of upheaval.

“I think that’s one of the advantages of playing the hard schedule that we’re playing, because we’ll be more ready for the ODAC season,” said Dean.  “It could come down to a possession here and a possession there.  And a game here and a game there could be the difference between finishing 3rd or 4th or 11th or 12th.”

Dean knows his way around the ODAC, as this year he will coach his 11th season, equaling him with his predecessor, Tom Baker, as the longest-tenured Eastern Mennonite men’s basketball coaches.  As the holder of four of the ten .500-or-better seasons in program history, Dean also has the most wins in men’s history with a career record of 134-129.

He has one regular season ODAC title, as well as the program’s only national tournament appearance.  He hopes this year’s team can peak at the right time to make their own mark.

“I just hope that whatever our ceiling is, about the first of February we’re reaching it,” said Dean.  “If that’s the case, then I don’t think anything is off the table.  You don’t want to be ridiculously optimistic, and so I don’t think we’re ready at this moment to be the regular season champs.  But I think by mid-February we could be ready to be the ODAC Tournament champs.”

The Runnin Royals finished with a record of 15-12 including 7-9 for eighth in the ODAC.  EMU won at Washington and Lee in the first round of the ODAC Tournament before falling to top-seeded Virginia Wesleyan in the quarterfinals.

After opening this year at the tip-off tourney at Mary Washington, and a non-conference game at Elizabethtown on Nov. 20, the men have their home opener against ODAC opponent Lynchburg on Saturday, Nov. 23.

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