Senior Blake Blair emerged as the team's sixth man last year in his first season on the varsity team.
As the winningest NCAA men's basketball team of the 2000s (.828; 477-99), The College of Wooster has a tradition of being able to reload year in and year out. That'll be the case again this year if the Fighting Scots want to be in the mix for another North Coast Athletic Conference title and make a postseason push, as Wooster graduated first-team all-conference guard Spencer Williams and four other seniors, most notably key contributors Alex Baptiste and Ari Stern.
"With a good returning nucleus, we're optimistic," said head coach Steve Moore, who enters his 32nd year at the College second among active Div. III coaches with 822 wins, 735 of which have come at Wooster. "We do of course need to establish depth having lost two starters, and Ari started some games for us, and was playing a key role at the end of the season. With losing three key players like that, we need others to step forward and be ready to contribute."
Wooster, which welcomes back seven letterwinners from its 22-7 team a year ago, starts the season ranked 21st in the D3hoops.com Top 25 Poll. Senior Reece Dupler, a two-time all-conference selection, is at the core of the returning nucleus, and now fully healthy, Moore's counting on one of his senior leaders to have a big season.
"Reece will probably play a very similar role on the wing," summed up Moore. "He's such a versatile player offensively that we'll look for him to do a lot of different things on offense. We've used him around the basket quite a bit, and as a guard, he's a very good post-up player."
Classmate Eric Bulic, a 1.5-year starter at forward, is the Scots' other senior returning to the starting lineup. Bulic, who already had a reputation as one of the NCAC's premier defensive-minded big men heading into last season, really worked hard on his offensive game, and could be relied on even more on that end of the floor this season.
"Eric's improved his efficiency on offense, especially scoring at the basket and finishing near the rim," shared Moore. "He had a very good offseason and made himself even stronger."
Rising junior Danyon Hempy rounds out the returning starters, and the wing player parlayed a strong closing stretch to the season into his first career all-conference certificate.
"We're looking for Danyon to be a very versatile player again," said Moore. "Danyon really improved his defense from his freshman to sophomore seasons. We're going to need him to be very good at both ends of the court again."
Wooster's key returnees outside of the starters are headlined by senior Blake Blair and rising junior Trenton Tipton, both of whom provided big boosts to the regular rotation at different junctures during the 2017-18 season.
Blair impacted the team from the get-go with eight points and four rebounds in his varsity debut against Oberlin College. From there, the Dover, Ohio native solidified his role as the team's sixth man and played key minutes in every game of the season.
"Blake should play a key role again," said Moore. "His success from last year has given him a lot of confidence heading into this season. Blake can play the wing spots, he can post up on offense, and he has a good 3-point shot."
Tipton exploded onto the scene with a strong showing against Emory & Henry College, and parlayed that performance into a spot in the regular rotation. In fact, Tipton averaged nearly 20 minutes per game once the calendar flipped to January.
"Confidence is the key word for Trenton," shared Moore. "The good performances Trenton had in the second half of the season have made him a more confident player. He had a good offseason and he worked on conditioning and building strength. Trenton's an experienced player now, and we're looking for that to pay off."
Senior Trey Miller and sophomore Keonn Scott round out the returning letterwinners, while junior Blake Southerland, sophomores Turner Horn and Josh Lotko, and junior Devin Zagar earned spot action in the past. All six are competing for larger roles.
Given the makeup of this year's team, Moore has the flexibility to mix-and-match in terms of overall size and speed with the on-court lineup, given numerous players have the skillset to fill multiple positions on the court.
However, the Scots' ability to play strong defense and rebound is a big point of pride for the program, and Wooster continued to rank among the nation's best in several key statistical categories, including rebound margin (24th) last year. Additionally, Wooster's 142 blocked shots were the eighth-most in Div. III a season ago.
Wooster of course has high goals for this season, including winning the conference championship, which Wooster has done more than any other NCAC team, and to be playing in March. During the Scots' current streak of a NCAA Div. III record 16 consecutive tournament appearances, Wooster's had three runs to the semifinals (2003, 2007, 2011).
Below is a look at the backcourt/wing, the frontcourt, and a breakdown of the Scots' challenging 2018-19 schedule:
Dupler, one of the most consistent players in the league, logged seven 20-point games last season, and showed a knack for stepping up in big moments. The then-junior went 11-for-14 from the floor en route to a 23-point afternoon during Wooster's win over No. 4 Hanover College, and finished one point shy of matching his career-high with 24 against John Carroll University in the NCAA Div. III Championships.
Hempy led the NCAC with 48 steals and ranked third with 35 blocked shots, but it was his play offensively down the stretch that stole the headlines. Hempy averaged 21.2 points over the final seven games of the season, headlined by a career-high 30-point night against Kenyon College, and he made 31 consecutive free throws at one point during the second-half of the regular season.
Miller, described by the staff as a "great leader for the team" is in the mix for time at point guard. He played in 12 games last season and averaged 1.3 points and 0.7 rebounds per game.
Scott, who spent last season in a reserve role, entered 18 games and chipped in with 2.2 points per night. This season, the sophomore has been working at point guard in the preseason, per Moore.
Horn, who battled the injury bug last year, dressed for a handful of games at the varsity level, and is being looked at more of as a wing or small forward position this year, per the staff.
Southerland is another returnee, who is "in the mix for time," per the staff.
Bulic ranked fourth in the NCAC in rebounding with 7.2 per night, and had a career year in the scoring column with 6.9 per game. In fact, Bulic nearly doubled his career-high in points early last season with 23 points in the first meeting against Hiram College, a total 10 above his previous career-best. The elite defender was one of two student-athletes league-wide to rank in the top five in rebounding and blocked shots last season.
Blair ended the year fourth on the team in scoring at 7.5 points per night, and emerged as one of the team's top outside threats evidenced by canning 36 3-pointers, the second-most on the team. A lights-out shooter, Blair was also one of two regulars to finish the year above 80 percent at the charity stripe.
Tipton averaged the second-most minutes among non-starters last year, and came up big in key moments. Signature games for the then-sophomore included a career-high 15 points against Wabash College on Jan. 20 and 10 points off the bench in the first round of the NCAA Div. III Championships.
Lotko is among the group "looking to earn playing time," per the staff. Last year, the forward earned spot action as a reserve forward and scored five points twice.
Zagar is another returnee who is "in the mix for time."
Sophomore transfer Dontae Williams, who previously played at Div. II Mercyhurst University, projects to make a significant impact in the frontcourt, while first-year JG Gillard is pressing hard for time.
Wooster once again faces a very tough schedule as the NCAC projects to be a parity-filled conference from top to bottom. Additionally, four of the Scots' seven non-conference games are against teams that made the NCAA Div. III Championships last season, and a fifth one comes against a team which advanced to the championship game of its conference tournament.
"As you know, we always like to play a tough non-league schedule for a couple reasons," said Moore. "One, to challenge our team and find out what we need to improve upon. The better competition you play, the more you find out about your team, and it makes you better in the long run. The other factor is strength of schedule is such an important criteria in the NCAA Tournament selections."
The regular season begins with the Scots' annual Al Van Wie/Wooster Rotary Classic in a Wednesday-Saturday format. Wooster opens the season against Muskingum University on Nov. 14, and Mount Saint Joseph College rounds out the classic on Nov. 17.
Wooster's pre-Thanksgiving destination is a game at Hanover on Nov. 20, and the Scots will have to contend with one of the top forwards in Div. III when the Black and Gold visit Ohio Northern University on Nov. 28.
The Scots open league play at Kenyon College on Nov. 28 and a home date with Allegheny College (Dec. 5) is sandwiched in between two other December road conference games at Hiram (Dec. 1) and Wabash (Dec. 8).
After finals, Wooster heads to Mesa, Ariz. where the Scots will host the Classic in the Valley. Wooster opens against 2018 national quarterfinalist Whitman College on Dec. 18, and plays NCAA Championships participant Sul Ross State University the following day.
Between Christmas and New Year's, one of the longest-running events in college basketball – the 56th annual E.M. "Mose" Hole/Kiwanis Classic is set to take place Dec. 29-30 with the second day's contests moved up to 2 and 4 p.m. due to falling on Sunday. A strong field is in place with Wooster playing an important NCAC game against Ohio Wesleyan University to cap Saturday's action at 7 p.m. following a 5 p.m. clash between New Jersey City University and Thiel College. Wooster and New Jersey City is the matchup for the second day of the classic.
Wooster hosts DePauw University (Jan. 5) in its first game once the calendar flips to 2019, and a week later one of small college basketball's top rivalries takes center stage when Wooster's at Wittenberg University for a 7 p.m. tip on Jan. 12. The Tigers make the return trip to Wooster for a 7 p.m. game on Feb. 9, and prior to that game, Wooster will honor its four seniors.
"There are a lot of good teams (in the league)," summed up Moore. "We can't take anyone lightly."