COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Every Ohio Dominican athletic program knew it had its work cut out for it entering Division II and the GLIAC last year, and men's basketball coach Artie Taylor knew his team would face the same challenges as it broke several new faces into the lineup.
"We never set any of the 'standard' goals before the year. We never talked about the number of games we wanted to win," Taylor said. "We started the season on the road playing a lot of good teams, and we just wanted to compete."
Compete they did, as the Panthers, despite a 6-20 record, took numerous games down to the wire. ODU lost nine contests by six points or less, had a pair of overtime losses, and narrowly missed upsets of No. 3 Findlay (64-58), No. 6 Hillsdale (72-68) and No. 25 Wayne State (69-66).
"We stayed true to our philosophy and started playing our best ball at the end of the season," Taylor said. "We just didn't finish games."
But with 11 letterwinners and six players who started at least 10 games returning to the fold, the fifth-year Panther coach is confident ODU can turn the corner and win those tight battles that it fell short in last season. The Panthers tip off their season this weekend with an 8 p.m. (ET) game at Division I Southern Illinois before taking on Division II's No. 12 ranked team, Southern Indiana, at 4 p.m. (ET) Sunday.
"This is the biggest nucleus of returning players I've ever had, and the expectations are there," Taylor said. "Last year, we were throwing so many new pieces into the fire. Now, the camaraderie is there. They're such a tight-knit group that they will battle each other in practice and walk out together as teammates, and that's a pleasure to see."
The Panthers return 93 percent of their scoring and 89 percent of their rebounding from last year, led by senior forward Aaron Gibbs (Oberlin, Ohio). Gibbs was honored as a Second Team All-GLIAC South Division pick last year, earning that same honor in the preseason poll this year as well. He averaged 12.8 points per game and was second in the GLIAC in rebounding (7.0) and eighth in field goal percentage (54.9).
"Aaron has been the focal point of our program since he stepped onto campus, and he just has a presence about him," Taylor said. "He knows the game and sees things before they develop. He's a main piece to our offense, and there's a reason why he's getting those awards."
Three frontcourt players who averaged at least 8.0 points per game are back in seniors Jake Mochoskay (Mansfield, Ohio), Zak Kapron (Malvern, Ohio) and John Trew (Barberton, Ohio). Mochoskay shined in the sixth man role, scoring in double figures in 12 of 16 games coming off the bench and averaging 10.2 points and 4.7 boards per game. Kapron chipped in 8.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per contest, while Trew scored 8.0 points per game and led the team with 37 blocked shots.
"Jake and John are big wing players for us who can play multiple positions," Taylor said. "Jake showed how good of a teammate he was with his willingness to come in off the bench, and he's a deep threat [team-best 60 three pointers]. John is a clutch performer who contributes with his shooting, rebounding and ability to block shots, and Zak has really matured in his time here after experiencing some ups-and-downs."
Both starters return in the backcourt in junior point guard Morgan Jones (Oberlin, Ohio) and senior Kip Kelley (Raleigh, N.C.). Jones led the team in scoring (13.0 points per game), assists (2.9) and steals (1.6) while averaging 4.0 rebounds per game. He had four games of at least 20 points and was one of the league's best free throw shooters at 81.4 percent.
"Morgan had a breakout year," Taylor said. "He's our best creator and is very good with the ball in his hands. He'll be more comfortable in his role this year, and he's also very good defensively, applying pressure to the other team's guards."
Kelley, meanwhile, was the top three-point shooter in the GLIAC, knocking down 46.3 percent of his shots beyond the arc. He scored 6.0 points per game and was second on the team with 53 assists.
"He's an undersized two-guard but is a great shooter and the most unselfish player on the roster," Taylor said. "He has the green light to shoot whenever he is open, and when teams zero in on him, it opens up other things in our offense."
ODU developed some depth off the bench in the backcourt last year, with senior guard Darrien Douglas (Willard, Ohio) and sophomore guard Zack Joseph (Lewis Center, Ohio) combining to log 26 minutes a night off the bench. Sophomore Brandon Carr (Westchester, Ill.) will also see minutes after appearing in seven games last season, and sophomore Bryce Cylar (Woodmere Village, Ohio) and freshman Drew Decker (East Tawas, Mich.) will also vie for minutes.
The frontcourt will be bolstered by the return of sophomore Don Kellum (Chicago), who played in 11 games last season, and a trio of freshmen in Brock Ammons (Findlay, Ohio), Bobby Stauffer (Lexington, Ky.) and Steven Bridgeman (Carroll, Ohio) all have the talents to make immediate contributions.
"We know that we won't be the biggest or most athletic team, but this is a talented group with a high basketball IQ," Taylor said. "These guys are smart, successful basketball players. Now that we have some depth, we feel that we can come at teams in waves this season."
Contact: Scott Miles