|Senior Milt Davis returns as a key perimeter player for the Scots, and is one of two seniors on the 2016-17 team.|
The College of Wooster men's basketball team peaked at the right time to end last season, won the program's 17th North Coast Athletic Conference championship, and made a return to the sectional final of the NCAA Div. III Basketball Championship. With four starters back in fold, the Fighting Scots aim to vie for another NCAC title and hope to make a postseason push.
"We do have a good returning nucleus, and our team did improve as the season went along last year," said Steve Moore, the second-winningest active NCAA Div. III coach with a 779-224 record (.778). "We played our best basketball towards the end of the season, and that was a real positive. There's a lot of optimism within the team, the players, and the fans this year."
Wooster, ranked seventh in D3hoops.com's top-25 preseason poll, returns 11 letterwinners, including its entire starting backcourt. Spencer Williams, a 6-2 junior guard, who made the successful transition from point guard to shooting guard, and was voted second-team all-region last year when he averaged 14.5 points per game, will lead the way.
"Spencer had a very good season, and he improved a lot," commented Moore. "He had a big impact when he was a freshman, but really elevated his game last year, and improved how you want a guy to improve from freshman to sophomore year."
Another returning starter in the backcourt is 6-0 sophomore guard Mitch Balser, who earned a starting role midway through the season, and Wooster turned in a 14-3 record with him in the starting lineup. Classmate Reece Dupler, a 6-2 guard, also earned a starting spot alongside Balser and Williams down the stretch, and really benefited from that role.
"The experience that Mitch and Reece gained in their first year, will hopefully lead to them playing like veterans and being better all-around players," added Moore. "Hopefully, they use that experience to help them improve."
Wooster also has plenty of other veterans back in the fold at the guard and wing positions. Senior Milt Davis headlines the returnees in that group, and he played a key role on the perimeter and averaged 7.0 points per game last year. Ari Stern, a junior guard, provides plenty of hustle and athleticism, particularly on the defensive end, while sophomore guard Simon Texidor earned time in 23 games as a freshman. Several newcomers will push for time as well in the backcourt and on the wing.
Up front, senior Dan Fanelly leads the way, and he averaged team-bests in points (15.1) and rebounds (5.7) per game, while turning in one of the top field goal percentages (.632) in the conference.
Said Moore, "Dan has made major contributions in his first three years with the program. We're hoping that this will be his best year yet."
Outside of Fanelly, Wooster's frontline will look to reload after the graduation of all-conference forward Alex LaLonde, and center Josh Kipfer, who played a big role in Wooster's NCAA Tournament run after a medical illness to LaLonde.
The Scots will look to 6-7 junior Alex Baptiste and 6-7 sophomore Eric Bulic to lead the way among the returnees, and the duo played integral roles off of the bench last year, combining to average 23 minutes, 5.7 points, and 5.2 rebounds per game. A fully-healthy Derek Schwarz, who missed his entire sophomore season due to injury, provides a big frame (6-6) down in the low post. A number of newcomers continue to push for time as well down low.
With a balanced core of returning players, Wooster will look to take advantage of its team speed and push the tempo whenever the opportunity presents itself. The Scots have led the league in scoring seven of the last 12 seasons, and finished second last year at 80.8 points. At the same time, Moore realizes the strong need for an efficient half-court offense predicated on ball movement.
"I think we have the potential to be a good transition team," summed up Moore. "We want to be aggressive in transition and utilize the good athletic ability we have. We also know that many games become half-court games. You have to be balanced and have a good half-court offense"
Wooster's defense ranked second in the conference yielding 70.2 points per game last year, and the opposition shot a conference-worst .413 from the field, but Moore noted there's plenty of room for the team to grow in terms of consistency on the defensive end.
"I think the experience that some of the young players gained (last year) will allow them to be better college defenders, and that will also help with our rebounding," explained Moore.
The Scots' goals never change, and those are to win the conference championship, which they have achieved more often than any other NCAC team, and to be playing in March, thus be part of the NCAA Div. III Championship field. Wooster has been in a staple in the national tourney, reaching it in each of the last 14 years – a NCAA Div. III record for the longest consecutive streak – with three runs to the semifinals (2003, 2007, 2011) highlighting that stretch.
Williams, who transitioned over to shooting guard as a sophomore earned first-team all-conference laurels in addition to his all-region accolade. He reached double figures in scoring 26 times and his point-producing ability really shined through in conference play with a trio of 20-point outings in a four-game span, headlined by a career-high 25 points in a win over Kenyon College on Feb. 3.
Balser complements Williams in the backcourt, and he seamlessly facilitated Wooster's offense throughout the season, including passing out 3.7 assists per game as a starter. He can also shoot when open (.392 3-point percentage last year).
Dupler, the lone freshman to earn a NCAC Player-of-the-Week honor last year, developed into a reliable contributor down the stretch, and averaged 9.1 points per game. The guard finished in double figures 13 times, including 11 of the 15 games, a stretch that included all of his starts.
Davis continued to provide reliable minutes off of the bench, and the 6-3 wing really stepped up during Wooster's NCAA Tournament run with a pair of double-digit point outings, including a career-high 18 against Lancaster Bible College this past March.
Stern, a two-year contributor, provides Moore someone who can provide veteran stability in a multitude of roles, as a member of the regular rotation. He contributed five points, five rebounds, and two key steals during the sectional rounds of last year's NCAA Tournament.
Texidor delivered productive minutes when called upon, and his season was headlined by a couple of memorable 3-pointers in Wooster's regular-season finale against Oberlin College, a win that secured a share of the NCAC title for the Scots.
Fanelly continued to rate as one of the NCAC's top post players, and now has a chance to really leave his mark on the program. An all-around player, Fanelly was lights out from the field – his .632 field goal percentage ranked 10th in Div. III – and he shot nearly 80 percent (.797) at the free throw line en route to 15.1 points per game. Fanelly made his presence felt in other facets of the game with a team-best 46 steals and over 50 assists (52).
Baptiste turned in a well-rounded season, and in fact, had the same number of points (100) as rebounds on the year, and was also a big force on the defensive end with 20 blocks on the year.
Bulic on the other hand, provides an option that can stretch the defense with his long-range ability, and he's worked super hard at his physicality down low in the post, according to Moore.
Schwarz will be searching for a bounce-back year. He played well when called upon as a freshman, including two rebounds, one assist, and one steal when pressed into action against Wabash College in the NCAC Tournament semifinals.
Wooster once again faces a very challenging schedule. The season begins with the Scots' annual Al Van Wie/Rotary Classic, in a Wednesday-Saturday format. The Wednesday, Nov. 16 contest marks the Scots' NCAC opener as well as Oberlin College visits Timken Gymnasium. Then, Defiance College, 20-game winners in two of the past three seasons, rounds out the classic on Nov. 19
A trip to No. 17 Marietta College follows on Wednesday, Nov. 23. The Pioneers topped the Scots in each of the last two seasons.
Then, after Thanksgiving a game against 20-game winner Saint John Fisher on Nov. 27 should provide a stiff test before a rematch of the NCAC Tournament championship game that takes place when Wooster hosts Denison University on Nov. 30.
Next, Wooster has a pair of tough road contests in a Dec. 3 trip to Wabash, followed by a Dec. 7 tilt at Hiram College. Wooster then returns home for a Dec. 10 meeting versus DePauw University.
The Scots then head to the Pacific Northwest for a pair of contests against quality teams. First, Wooster takes on Whitman College, a fellow team in the D3hoops.com preseason top-10, before rounding out the trip with a tilt at Lewis & Clark College on Dec. 21.
Between Christmas and New Year's, the Scots host one of the longest-running events in college basketball – the 54th annual "Mose" Hole/Kiwanis Classic. A strong field is once again in place, with Wooster and Ohio Wesleyan University squaring off against Hobart College and preseason No. 20 Washington University in St. Louis.
When the calendar changes over to 2017, it will be all conference games, starting with a match-up of the top two teams in the conference preseason poll when Wooster hosts eighth-ranked Ohio Wesleyan on Jan. 7. Another of one of the nation's best small-college basketball rivalries – Wittenberg University-Wooster takes place at Springfield, Ohio on Jan. 14, and the Tigers visit the Scots to cap the regular season on Feb. 18. The teams split their meetings last year, but the Scots have gotten the better of the Tigers in nine of the last 10 meetings to take a narrow 57-55 lead all-time.
Of course, Wooster will have to stay focused for all opponents during the 18-game conference grind, and Moore expects the conference to be as tougher than it's ever been from top to bottom.
"The NCAC has really gained a lot of respect nationally over the last few years," summed up Moore. There will be a lot of challenging games on the NCAC schedule."