LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- Coming off a historical season with a conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance, the Covenant men's basketball team will look to defend its crown in 2016-17 under first year head coach Arte Culver.
The season gets started with an exhibition contest at NCAA Division I neighbor Chattanooga on Friday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. at McKenzie Arena. Tickets are available through the UTC ticket office or can be purchased at the link above.
Friday's tilt with the Mocs will be the first of two exhibitions against Division I foes on the year. Covenant also travels to Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 27 to square off with Tennessee State.
A lot has happened since the Scots last took the floor in March. Arte Culver was named the head coach after seven-year head man Kyle Taylor left his post for a position with Utah State. Culver, a former walk-on with Rice, spent the last two years as an assistant coach at Wheaton (Ill.) and looks to instill his coaching philosophy on his team right away.
"The guys have transitioned well so far," Culver said. "We try to take little steps every day and we've made progress in practices."
The schedule will make the season a challenging one. Along with the usual USA South slate, Covenant will face three non-conference teams ranked in the top 15 of the preseason D3Hoops.com Top 25 in the first month of the season. Those contests are vs. No. 15 Emory (Nov. 15), at No. 12 Whitworth (Dec. 9) and at No. 9 Whitman (Dec. 10). The Scots will also face 2016 NCAA Tournament participants in Birmingham Southern and USA South foe LaGrange during the year.
"We play traditional powers and we have a chance to do something special," Culver said. "To be the best, we have to beat the best and we are putting ourselves in that position."
Culver's roster is a mix of experienced players and a highly regarded recruiting class. The Scots return eight players, including four starters, and also feature nine freshmen. Junior Berto Dryden, sophomore Bailey Spragg, junior Patjo Twagirayezu and senior Connor Sears are the four returning starters and all four played critical roles in leading the Scots to a USA South Tournament championship in 2016.
"There's a foundation to build on, but a significant amount of growth as well," Culver said. "A temptation coming off such a good year is having a level of complacency, but I think there's enough 'newness' to combat that. I expect it to be a good, challenging year."
Dryden is the top returning scorer as he averaged 10.6 points and was second on the team with 2.6 assists per game. Twagirayezu collected 5.1 rebounds and 7.9 points per game, while Spragg and Sears contributed nearly seven points a game each.
"A big part for our returners is assuming leadership," Culver noted. "I don't think there's one guy that will fill that role, but they can fill that void by committee. The leadership portion will be most impactful for our team this year."
Sharp-shooting senior Ben Phelps returns after knocking down 49.5 percent from behind the 3-point line in 2015-16. Fellow seniors Will Portlock and Z Arima return as well. Portlock averaged 6.5 points and Arima chipped in 4.7 per game. Sophomore Nick Palmer also returns after appearing in seven games last season.
The recruiting class netted nine total players highlighted by post players in William Bryan (Lithonia, Ga.) and Caleb Haynes (Section, Ala.). "Caleb Haynes has been phenomenal and William Bryan has also been impressive and has unbelievable physical tools," said Culver about two of his newcomers.
The rest of the recruiting class includes: Jackson Kendall (Huntsville, Ala.), Mitchell Hollis (Roswell, Ga.), Jared Jauch (Lynchburg, Va.), Stefon Bright (Woodstock, Ga.), James Mitchell (Macon, Ga.), J Walker (Birmingham, Ala.) and Zack Allen (Fayetteville, Ga.).
Culver expects all newcomers to contribute and make a smooth transition to college basketball. "They've all done a good job at competing and absorbing everything," Culver said. "It is a big jump from high school to college, but those guys are transitioning well."
Picked third in the USA South preseason poll, the Scots expect to be one of the top teams in the conference once again, but Culver wants his squad to focus on getting the most out of his team and letting results take care of themselves.
"My biggest goal is to just get the most out of everybody," Culver added. "We want to leave it all out on the floor this year and be able to look back at the end of the year and have no regrets."
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