In the team’s best preseason rank in the AP poll, men’s basketball readies for its return to the court to take on South Dakota State on Nov. 25 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The No. 11 Bluejays return a number of last year’s stars as they prepare for a season packed with uncertainties.
“Experience is always important in college basketball, I think it matters every single year but especially this year with the uncertainties of the pandemic and how the routines have changed from previous years,” head men's basketball coach Greg McDermott said. “It’s really valuable to me to have a group of leaders that have been through it and can help me navigate these new processes with the younger people on our team.”
Despite the loss of Ty-Shon Alexander, McDermott remains confident in the rest of his squad that led the Bluejays to a share of the Big East regular season title last March.
Among those returners are junior guard Marcus Zegarowski, junior forward Christian Bishop, senior guards Denzel Mahoney and Mitch Ballock, and senior forward Damien Jefferson.
Zegarowski, who averaged 16.1 points per game last season, is this year’s preseason Big East player of the year.
He comes back to the court ready to prove this honor that he calls a “product of his environment,” attributing his coaches, family and most of all his teammates for his success the past two seasons.
“They make me look good out there,” Zegarowski said of his teammates.
Another weapon is the return of junior center Jacob Epperson, who’s sat out the last two seasons with injuries but spent the offseason and quarantine building back strength.
“I was able to stay here and work with my strength coach and athletic trainer, hopefully that will help me get through the season,” Epperson said.
His return to the lineup adds depth to his spot as he joins Bishop and freshman Ryan Kalkbrenner — the extra presence and depth add a strength both teammates and McDermott are eager to utilize.
“It adds different dynamics and different ways we can implement the bigs into our system, we’ll be able to play big some games and some games we’ll be able to play small,” Ballock said. “Having those different adjustments, we can go to poses a lot of different ways we can throw different bigs at different opponents.”
This is one element that could come in handy for the Bluejays as they face the current No. 7 Kansas Jayhawks on Dec. 8.
While the Jays are confident for their return later this month, the impacts of the pandemic this offseason continue making for a unique transition into competition and make it clear the season will look different.
Typically, the team would have a closed scrimmage and an exhibition game against outside opponents to break up the practices, so it’s making the players anxious to get back to playing as they face opponents dealing with the same challenges.
“It’s going to be different this year, and we have to try doing different better than everyone else,” McDermott said.
With less than two weeks until the season’s start, the goal is to get back to consistency and pick up where they left off.
“The goal is to go as far as possible, to win as many games as possible,” Zegarowski said. “Going into this year that’s our mindset. We have unfinished business and we’re excited to take that challenge on one day at a time, one practice at a time, one game at a time.”
The Bluejays start conference play on Dec. 14 at home against Marquette, the beginning of the four Big East matchups currently announced.