LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- Coming off back-to-back winning seasons, the Covenant men's basketball team has experience on the court but a new man in charge. First year head coach Neal Young has his Scots ready to jump into the 2017-18 season, which begins on Saturday with an exhibition at NCAA Division II member Lee. Tip-off is set for 2:30 p.m. in Cleveland, Tenn.
Young, who spent the last four years as head coach at Goshen College, takes over a program that has seen success over the last two years. In all 13 players return from last year's squad that finished 14-12 overall, including four starters. Covenant is looking for its first three-straight winning season stretch since the 1980s, but another strong schedule will greet the Scots this year.
Covenant was picked to place third in the USA South West Division, behind Maryville and LaGrange, in the conference's annual preseason poll. The USA South split into two divisions, East and West, with Covenant playing in the West along with Berea, Brevard, Huntingdon, LaGrange, Maryville, and Piedmont. Games against Brevard and East Division member Pfeiffer will not count towards league standings as those members reclassify from NCAA Division II.
Four starters return for the Scots this season as seniors Berto Dryden and Patjo Twagirayezu are joined by junior Bailey Spragg and sophomore Caleb Haynes. Twagirayezu was an All-USA South honoree last season after averaging a team-best 13.1 points per game and shooting nearly 50 percent from the field. Dryden averaged 11.8 points per contest and led the team in assists, while Spragg was at 9.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game from his guard spot. Haynes looks to build off a phenomenal rookie campaign where he averaged 8.4 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.
Junior Nick Palmer and sophomore William Bryan also saw significant time on the court last year and return this season. Also returning are sophomores Ari Zorns, Mitchell Hollis, Jared Jauch, Jackson Kendall, James Mitchell, and Stefon Bright. Overall, Covenant is a relatively young team with just two seniors and two juniors along with eight sophomores and five freshmen.
Young inherited a strong recruiting class from predecessor Arte Culver. Size was at the forefront of the class as the group includes 6-foot-9 Will Crumly along with 6-foot-7 Jacob Thornton and 6-foot-4 Ben Moore. Guards Tony Pulice and Ryan Rhodes rounded out the class and all look to provide immediate impacts for the Scots this season.
The season opener is set for Nov. 15 at Oglethorpe. The Scots open the home slate on Nov. 21 against Birmingham Southern before taking a nine-day break for Thanksgiving. Upon return, the Scots square off with USA South rival LaGrange at home on Nov. 30.
Covenant will travel to preseason nationally-ranked Emory in early December and also make a trip to Memphis, Tenn., before Christmas to take on Rhodes and Austin College. USA South play then heats up over the final two months of the regular season. Rival Maryville comes to Barnes PE Center on Jan. 31 and Piedmont makes the trek to Lookout Mountain on Jan. 17.
The USA South Tournament will have a slightly different format this year. The top four teams from each division qualify for the tournament. The top two seeds in each division will host quarterfinal round games on Feb. 20 before the winners travel to the highest remaining seed for the semifinals and championship on Feb. 23-24.
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