RICHMOND, Ind. – When Earlham College men's basketball tips-off its 2018-19 season on Sunday afternoon against visiting Albion College, the most distinctive difference between this squad and Head Coach Jason Polykoff's previous four teams may be the easiest to overlook.
Fans – you know these guys. You've seen them before.
The Quakers will suit up 10 juniors and seniors in the lineup, nine of whom have seen minutes in Earlham maroon and white.
Coming off Earlham's most successful campaign as a member of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference with last season's 8-17 overall record and 6-12 mark in conference play, the Quakers will now have the added dimension of veteran leadership both on the court and off of it.
"This is probably the furthest along we've been developmentally since I've been here and I think it's directly correlated to having upperclassmen," said Polykoff. "Since I've been here, we've had no more than two seniors each year, and this year, when they're healthy, we have six surrounding our program. It just makes life so much easier because of the leadership you gain from them."
The Quakers return 60 percent of their offense from a year ago, with most of the departed scoring attributable to Elijah Wilson-Thomas (17.5 ppg), who was also Earlham's top long-range threat with 60 3-point field goals while shooting at a .417 clip from beyond the arc.
"There's no one person who's going to make up for 17 points per game. I think it's going to be a collective effort where a few different players will make up a few extra points," said Polykoff.
Pacing the returnees in 2018-19 will be senior Darrell Hutchison Jr. who netted 14.4 points per game. Hutchison missed the final six games of the 2017-18 season due to injury, but is back to being completely healthy and should be able to help make up some of the scoring difference.
Sophomore guard Jamel Barnes (23 gp/17 starts) and junior guard Kenneth Stalling Jr. (25 gp/18 starts) average 9.3 and 9.1 points respectively last season, and will also be among the players counted upon to add a little more offensively. Barnes is Earlham's best returning three-point shooter (28-85), and led the Quakers last season with 69 assists (2.8 per game).
Polykoff will also be looking for increased offensive production from senior guard Isaiah Waire, who averaged 4.0 ppg in 2017-18. Junior forward Qawi Rucker, a transfer from Cincinnati State College, has also demonstrated a solid scoring ability during preseason, according to Polykoff, and should also be able to help on the offensive end.
Hutchison and Waire, along with junior guard Blake Bonin (3.2 ppg in 2017-18) will serve as team captains for 2018-19. Bonin was second on the team with 40 total assists (2.2 per game) over 14.8 minutes per game in 18 games.
The level of experience the Quakers can put on the court should also allow for more defensive intensity than seen in the past, and will hopefully limit opponents' shot selection.
"We have a bunch of players who are committed on the defensive end this year. Last year, I'm not so sure that was always the case," explained Polykoff. "Second half of last season, we made some adjustments defensively that were able to help us out, and I think this season you'll see more concentration on being a better defensive team this year."
Altogether, the key to success for Earlham in 2018-19 may lay in the intangibles. If the Quakers can effectively move the ball around to get open shots, maintain their intensity, and keep a high level of team spirit up-and-down the lineup, the Maroon and White will be well on their way to surpassing last season's win total.
"I think we have enough talent on this roster – but it's a long season. If we stay steady with those three things and we should be okay," said Polykoff.