MEN'S BASKETBALL SEASON PREVIEW: Depth plentiful for rising Pioneers

Transylvania junior guard Cooper Theobald returns to the Pioneers as the leading scorer for the 2017-2018 season.
Transylvania junior guard Cooper Theobald returns to the Pioneers as the leading scorer for the 2017-2018 season.

Lexington, Ky. - The 2017-2018 men's college basketball season offers forth a compelling act in the Transylvania Pioneers.

The 2016-2017 version of the Transy men's basketball team presented a picture of a team on the rise with youthful vigor. On some nights, the potential of the roster was on full display. On other nights, the Pioneers were a team that looked to be a play or two away from making ends meet.

Transylvania showed its mettle as a high-flying offensive power last year, ranking second in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference in points per game, averaging 84 a night and leading the conference in 3-pointers per game. Defensively, the Pioneers labored to slow down opponents, yielding 79.3 points a game.

17th-year men's basketball head coach Brian Lane has laid out the blueprint for his team for the upcoming season: "We must be more intense on the defensive end and I think the quality depth we have this year will help us improve." 

Now, as Transylvania enters the 2017-2018 season, the Pioneers have returned with many of their ingredients from the previous campaign along with a treasure trove of talent, leadership, knowledge and decades of combined wisdom at their disposal.

"We have always been a team that could score," added Lane. "As the season progresses, we have been able to really prepare a game plan to get the most out of our personnel. It is a treat to be able to coach such smart kids."  

In 2016-17, the Pioneers compiled a respectable 17-10 overall record and an 11-7 run through the HCAC. The Pioneers improved upon their win total by six games from the previous year and staged a mild upset in the HCAC Tournament quarterfinals before falling to eventual Elite Eight qualifier Hanover College in a razor-thin game to end the season.

The Pioneers said farewell to three outgoing seniors, including the conference's assist leader and the team's leading scorer, guard Alex Jones. 

Despite Jones's graduation, the Pioneers return four starters to their lineup in 2017, ready to pick up from where they left off, and fully prepared to continue their upward ascent.

The number one question entering 2017-2018 is how high can the Pioneers soar?

The answer may lie in what the Pioneers have acquired over the past summer and beyond: plenty of help in many departments.

For another season, Transylvania will approach the season leaning upon and expecting even more from a slew of incumbents. Returning for his third season is junior point guard Cooper Theobald (Fort Mitchell, Ky. / Covington Catholic HS); the multifaceted facilitator set a single-game NCAA Division III record for free throws attempted last season, sinking 29 of 32 attempts in a double-overtime win at Defiance.

Ranking top-10 in the HCAC in points per game (15.6), Theobald's ability to lead the league in free throws made naturally suits the guard for another year of efficient scoring opportunities. The junior's versatility is widespread; Theobald led the Pioneers in rebounds, grabbing 6.5 a game.

Returning to duty alongside Theobald on the wings are sophomores Gabe Schmitt (Louisville, Ky. / Trinity HS) and Spencer McKinney (Danville, Ky. / Danville HS). Each made impactful splashes as freshmen, combining for 46 starts to get a quick dose of valuable starters' minutes and often learning on the fly. This year, Lane hopes that investment will pay off over the final three seasons.

Schmitt ranked fourth in the HCAC in 3-point percentage, hitting on 44.9 percent of his shots from distance. McKinney also shot better than 40 percent from outside, sharpening Transylvania's fangs as an offensive juggernaut.

The veteran cadre for the Pioneers sports plenty of size up front. Junior Bo Schuh (Fort Mitchell, Ky. / Covington Catholic HS) returns for his third campaign. After a midseason knee injury derailed the rest of his freshman season in 2015-16, the sophomore gradually worked his way back into the lineup last season, amassing six starts while seeing action in 23 contests. Now fully healthy, Schuh figures to offer the Pioneers rebounding and shooting relief along with his requisite intensity.

Back at the Beck Center for his final run, senior forward Robert Dence (Lexington, Ky. / Lexington Catholic HS) is another critical piece of Transylvania's defensive equation. The forward shot a blistering 60.7 percent from the field last season while offering effective harassment to his contemporaries on the other end of the floor.

Tristan Burgess (Ashland, Ky. / Boyd County HS) is the other Pioneer senior on the roster; a mainstay of Lane's system, Burgess is another veteran that can step up and offer a quick dose of offense at any given time. His 50 percent effective field-goal percentage gives the Pios another outside threat for defenders to reckon with.

Completing the returning gauntlet of length and inside capabilities is junior forward Kyle Gullett (Paintsville, Ky. / Johnson Central HS). A transfer that arrived to Lexington in fall of 2016, Gullett enjoyed a productive first season for the Pioneers, finishing third on the team in scoring at 13.2 points per game and leading the HCAC in blocks with 71 rejections.

Like many of his teammates, the hunger has burned deep for Gullett during the preseason, a mindset Transylvania hopes furnishes dividends well into the season.

"We have the depth and experience to contend for an HCAC title," stated Lane. "We felt we were really close last year and if our defense continues to improve like it has, we should be in the conference race in February."

Another component that should factor towards helping the Pioneers get closer is a loaded freshman class. The Pioneers welcome 11 newcomers to this year's roster, amping the roster up to a size of 18 men.

Competition has been fierce among the new faces and returnees in training camp. A few that have risen to the top thus far include freshman Michael Jefferson (Berea, Ky. / Madison Southern HS), a versatile wing who has acclimated well to the game speed of college basketball. "Michael is solid with the ball and can really score off the move," analyzed Lane. "He finds his teammates in transition well."

Sophomore transfer Drew Trimble (Lexington, Ky. / Lexington Christian HS / U.S. Naval Academy) immediately takes the mantle of the tallest player on the team at 6-foot-8. The big man has made his length count as a willing competitor in the trenches and presents another option for Lane as a rebounding and defending presence indoors.

Point guard Devin Twenty (Bradenton, Fla. / Lakewood Ranch HS) is another ballhandling resource that Lane hopes to employ in key situations while enhancing Transylvania's defense. "Devin has emerged as a lockdown defender that can really disrupt the other team's ballhandler," stated Lane. "He is really quick and can create in transition."

Thorough analysis of the Transylvania men's basketball program for the 2017-2018 season would be incomplete without turning one's attention to a new-look coaching staff. While the incumbent Lane is a steadfast face on the sidelines, his supporting cast is one borne out of an all-star cast of basketball figures.

Second-year assistant coach Kyle Macy needs no introduction in the Bluegrass as the former University of Kentucky legend prepares for his second campaign with Lane and the Pioneers.

Joining Macy and Lane is Steve Wright, a high-school coaching veteran in the state of Kentucky who has carved out a legacy of greatness in the region. Bringing nearly four decades of head coaching experience to Lexington, Wright also comes to Lexington firmly entrenched in the college game, having spent his previous season at NCAA Division II Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Lane also welcomes Bart Bellairs to his coaching staff this season, a well-known name in the South. Bellairs spent 11 seasons as head coach of NCAA Division I Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia where he coached future NBA talents and cultivated a storied coaching career.

With decades of coaching experience at his disposal, Lane has a knowledge base and cabinet of leadership ready to guide the Pioneers into a stratosphere of fast-track development.

"I would be surprised if there is a program in the country that has a group of assistant coaches with the wide array of experience that we have," gushed Lane. "All three (of my assistants) have been head coaches so I think our players are getting some really good instruction on and off the court. The biggest effect with such an experienced staff is the attention to detail. Because we have a larger staff, I feel our guys are really being held more accountable in practice."

Analysis shifts towards performance beginning Wednesday, November 15 when the Pioneers host Greenville University in a guaranteed run-and-gun affair at the Beck Center at 7:30 p.m. The nonconference schedule will witness the Pioneers hosting archrival Centre College on Monday, November 20 in the annual quintessential Bluegrass Thanksgiving appetizer.

The Pioneers will welcome Emory & Henry, Guilford, and North Park to Lexington for the 2017 edition of the Don Lane Classic on December 20-21, before wrapping up nonconference action in Atlanta, Georgia versus Birmingham-Southern and Emory.   

Transylvania tips off HCAC play on Saturday, December 2 at Bluffton University before facing critical home tests on December 6 versus Hanover and December 9 against Rose-Hulman in a combative afternoon.

Picked to finish third in the HCAC this season, the Pioneers know their increased depth will not be solely responsible for their success, but also a committed focus on attitude on defense and improvement. As the season progresses, Lane knows that one quality will prevail in the end. 

"Whether it be full-court pressure, an aggressive zone, or tough man-to-man defense, we want to make sure that we are making it as tough as possible on the opponent each and every game."

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