Lexington, Ky. – When the scoreboard in the final game of the season for the Transylvania men's basketball team saw the Pioneers end up on the short side against eventual conference Mt. St. Joseph in the conference tournament semifinals, it left a bitter taste in the Pioneers' mouths.
It also left a burning hunger for a team that returns most of its nucleus to the 2016-17 edition of the Transylvania Pioneers, ready to pick up from where they left off in a February season that ran out of time.
The Pioneers men's basketball team overcame a dreary start to the season to hold its own in Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference play, beating each conference team it faced. But the Pioneers were plagued by injuries to key rotation players and a lack of consistency at key times in their conference schedule to go 9-9. The Pioneers also endured their fair share of health issues, as only two players were able to suit up in all 27 games.
Using resourcefulness when depth appeared to be waning at times, the Pioneers latched onto the sixth and final seed of the HCAC Tournament and made a spirited march through the tournament before No. 1 seeded Mt. St. Joseph staved off a final-minute run from the Pioneers to bring their season to an end.
In 2016-17, the Pioneers have reloaded, returning three players to their starting lineup and adding a cast of characters who are expected to contribute immediately to the Pioneers in impactful ways.
"I expect us to get off to a very strong start this year with a much more experienced team than we have had in a few years," said head coach Brian Lane. "We should be able to use a strong bench to help wear teams down, and will need to focus on rebounding when we have smaller lineups."
While the Pioneers graduate two starters in Parker Stansberry and Lowell Gordon, the rest of the roster is ready to pick up from where it left off in 2016 as the team tries to qualify for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since going to the big dance in 2012 and 2013.
Returning to the Transylvania starting lineup is sophomore point guard Cooper Theobald (Fort Mitchell, Ky. / Covington Catholic), who ranked seventh in the HCAC in rebounding (6.4 rpg) and second on the Pioneers in assists (2.4 apg). The sophomore was a finalist in HCAC Freshman of the Year voting and set a conference record for most made free throws, canning 169 freebies.
Another returning starter is senior wingman Alex Jones, the team's leading scorer from last season at 16.4 points per game, the seventh-best mark in the HCAC. Jones returns to the Pioneers for his final campaign coming off of an All-HCAC Second Team selection in 2015-16, and being selected Team MVP by his peers.
The Pioneers await the return of sophomore forward Bo Schuh (Fort Mitchell, Ky. / Covington Catholic), whose career got off to a promising start before suffering an ACL injury 11 games into the season. A classic stretch-four, Schuh was averaging 13.3 points per game and was second on the team in rebounding when a knee-injury brought his freshman year to an unceremonious close. As Schuh continues to work his way towards the end steps of his rehabilitation, the Pioneers can afford his gradual return thanks to depth in the frontcourt.
That's because the lineup boasts additional strength with the addition of sophomore forward Kyle Gullett, who joins the Pioneers as a transfer from Division I Southeast Missouri State. An original Transy commit back in 2015, Gullett's presence is a welcome arrival to Lexington. Thus far, Gullett has shown a creative array of offensive moves, and presents an athleticism that further adds to the Pioneers' competitive viability for 40-minute stretches.
With an increased amount of pieces to work with, expectations are high for this Transylvania squad, which was voted to finish second in the HCAC standings in the 2016 preseason coaches' poll.
"In our first practice of the year, I told the team I wanted this to be the closest team they have ever played on," reflected Lane. "If we can stay together, work hard for each other, and continue to push each other throughout the season in practice, we will have a successful season."
The incoming freshman class also figures to offer quick assistance to Lane's roster, thanks to the additions of guard Spencer McKinney (Danville, Ky. / Danville), and guard Grant Clarkson (Shelbyville, Ky. / Collins). McKinney and Clarkson each add a new dimension to the Pioneers through diverse abilities.
Also joining into the incoming bunch are guard Gabe Schmitt (Louisville, Ky. / Trinity) and forward Zachary Pulliam (Cynthiana, Ky. / Harrison Co.). Between Schmitt's adept playmaking and Pulliam's deep range, the Pioneers will feel the depth bolstered in a myriad of youthful ways. The Pioneers will also see a new addition to the roster with a familiar surname in guard Harrison Lane (Lexington, Ky. / Lafayette), the son of Lane, and grandson of Transy coaching legend Don Lane, who oversaw the program from 1976-2001.
Another big addition for the Pioneers in 2016-17 pertains to Lane's coaching staff. Kyle Macy, an icon in Kentucky basketball has joined forces with Lane for the second time in their careers. Hailed as one of the great basketball legends in Lexington, Macy joined the Pioneers coaching staff last month as an assistant.
It's a role reversal for Macy and Lane; Macy served as the head coach at Morehead State from 1997 through 2006, and had Lane on his staff as an assistant coach before accepting the head coaching position at Transylvania in 2001.
"Kyle has done a tremendous job with our guys in individual work and practices," said Lane. "His experience as a former NBA player and head NCAA Division I coach has already paid dividends for our young guys. Because of ESPN guidelines, Kyle will not be on the bench during games but will have a key role in scouting as well as recruiting."
The Pioneers will open up their nonconference slate with a home opener on November 16 against bluegrass neighbor Thomas More College. They then venture to Centre on November 21, followed by a Monday road game at Greenville to jumpstart a post-Thanksgiving stretch.
Transylvania commences conference play on Saturday, December 3 when it hosts Bluffton at 4:00 p.m. before taking on a combination of nonconference and HCAC competition through the rest of the month. A powerful conference awaits the Pioneers, who are ready to pick up from where they left off last February.
Equipped with depth and shooting, Lane has his Pioneers focused on combining those individual strengths to achieve the greater goal of competing for what would be Transylvania's first conference championship since 2013. While championship dreams sparkle in the eyes of Pioneers and their ever-devoted fanbase, the longtime head coach still harbors a conventional desire for his team straight from the heart of a teacher: "We always talk about playing for the team," said Lane. "All of our players were the best players on their high school team and now they may end up in a different role. If we are able to play unselfishly and work hard to improve every day in practice, we can develop into a solid basketball team."
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