The Malone University men’s basketball team will open up its 2017-18 campaign this Friday and Saturday by hosting the Great Midwest Athletic Conference/Great Lakes Valley Conference Crossover Classic at Osborne Hall.
The Pioneers embark on the season looking to build off last year’s solid finish. After a slow start, Malone won nine of its final 13 regular-season games in 2016-17 and advanced to the semifinal round of the Great Midwest Postseason Tournament.
While the team was certainly not satisfied with last year’s end result, third-year head coach Casey Kaufman knows the experience gained from last season could pay dividends for his squad in 2017-18.
“We haven’t talked about last year a lot because it was short of our goals,” Kaufman said. “But it was good for our guys to experience some success. I think our returners are aware of how difficult that was, and they understand that to get to a higher level, we need to improve every day.”
With five of their top-six scorers returning, the Pioneers’ lineup should have good chemistry with one another and will have plenty of different ways to put points on the scoreboard. However, with the graduation of Brandon Bapst, Christian Graves and Nick Williams, Malone’s head coach is most concerned about replacing the leadership the three seniors provided for the program.
“All three of the guys that graduated last year had different types of leadership, and it will be important to fill those voids,” Kaufman said. “We have asked some of our returners to take ownership, come out of their shell and be more vocal.”
Point guard Ty Jordan (Houston, Texas), forward Mitchell Spotleson and forward Djuro Pantos (Belgrade, Serbia) make up Malone’s 2017-18 senior class. Each played important roles for the team a year ago and will once again be key components to the Pioneers’ formula for success.
Jordan was a Great Midwest First Team selection after ranking among the conference leaders in scoring (15.8 ppg), steals (47), assists (153) and three-pointers (73). Spotleson, a four-year starter, averaged 13.5 points and ranked fifth in the conference with 7.0 rebounds per game last season. The Lake High School graduate has started all 82 games through his first three seasons at Malone and is just 96 points away from reaching 1,000 for his career. Meanwhile Pantos will look to expand on a solid junior campaign in which he tallied 6.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per outing.
Another key contributor for the Pioneers will be junior guard Nate Sheppard (Jefferson H.S.), who ranked seventh in the league in both points (14.9 ppg) and rebounds (5.7 rpg) and reached double-digits in scoring in 26 of his 27 games played. Additional experience will be provided by guard Daylan Haynie (Westerville South H.S.), a G-MAC All-Freshman Team selection last season, along with forward Ben Evans (Jr., Delaware Christian H.S.) and guard Kamron Carroll (Jr., Valencia, California.).
Newcomers to the team include transfers Bryce Butler (So., Clark Montessori H.S./Alderson Broaddus University), Rholy Mouliom (Jr., Paris, France/Parkland Community College), and Nitavian Sims (Jr., Chicago, Illinois/Moraine Valley Community College) along with true freshmen Marcus Ernst (Edgewood H.S.), Jaret Majestic (Malvern H.S.) and Kenny Thompson (Walnut Hills H.S.).
“All of our newcomers have something unique that stands out,” Kaufman said. “At this point those that are most quickly adapting to our culture are ahead in practice.”
The Pioneers were picked seventh among 12 teams in the Great Midwest Preseason Coaches Poll and will be challenged by a 20-game conference schedule that includes both home and away matchups with a pair of nationally ranked teams in the University of Findlay and Kentucky Wesleyan College.
While Malone has its sights set on surpassing last year’s achievements, Kaufman knows focus, determination and hard work will be required every day if the team wants to reach its goals.
“Right now defense and rebounding are the two things that need to improve,” Kaufman said. “We are not quite there yet offensively in order to compete at a high level. Every practice needs to feel like a step forward. It sounds cliché, but it is so true.”
The Pioneers will get the season under way on Friday with an 8 p.m. contest against the University of Illinois Springfield. Malone will then take on the University of Southern Indiana at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Tournament information and a complete Crossover Classic schedule are available at www.malonepioneers.com/crossoverclassic.