NEW CONCORD -- With the graduation of nearly 50 percent of last year's scoring and just two returning lettermen, Muskingum University men's basketball coach Gene Ford will have to rely on a bevy of unproven and untested players as the Muskies attempt to climb back into the upper tier of the Ohio Athletic Conference this season.
Gone are the two top scorers from a year ago, Kyle Clinedinst and Josh Brindley.
Clinedinst led the Muskies in scoring with a 16.8 ppg average and finished his career with 1033 points while being tabbed second team all-OAC, while Brindley followed with a 14.1 ppg scoring average and received all-OAC honorable mention honors.
Thus 30.9 ppg of the Muskies team average of 61.32 ppg over the 25-game schedule is no longer available.
Others that are gone due to graduation include Carson Thomas, JJ Armstrong and George Williams. Thomas scored at a 7.2 ppg clip with Armstrong adding 4.6 ppg which now ups the loss of scoring to over half of what the Muskies scored last year.
"Scoring is definitely a concern at this point," Ford admitted. "How well will we score and who is going to step up to take those two spots. Someone is going to shoot it, but how will we do defensively and rebounding remains a question. We are as big this year as Muskingum has been since I have been here, but we are unproven and untested and several of them are truly first-year players."
Ford does return five lettermen including 5-8 junior point guard Isaiah Shakespeare and fellow juniors 6-3 forward Clay Owings and 6-0 guard Phil Ellis along with sophomores 6-3 forward Jonathan Primes and 6-1 guard Logan Kimble (New Philadelphia).
Both Owings and Kimble saw some time in the starting lineup last year with Kimble averaging 7.2 ppg and Owings 3.6 ppg.
There are no seniors on the roster which brought Ford to quip, "We won't be hurt this year by graduation."
Five transfer students with limited playing time or none at all at their previous schools include 6-1 junior guard Dave Brown (Coshocton) a transfer from Southern Wesleyan where he was a member of the team, 6-10 junior forward Jarod Hood who officially transferred from Columbus State, but played at least part of one season at Capital University and sophomores 5-10 guard Darion Allen coming from Central State where he didn't play, 6-6 forward Michael Klamo, son of former Muskie standout Steve Klamo, who comes from Wittenberg where he played JV ball last year and 6-5 forward Cody Seiler a transfer from Wayne College where they only have club basketball.
"Although they are all transfers," Ford pointed out, "we originally recruited them but they decided to go someplace else. They are now coming back."
The other junior candidate back is 5-11 guard Bryant Bechtel from Worthington Kilbourne. Sophomores returning for their second year include 5-11 guard Nick Levin, 6-7 center Reed Simpson, 5-10 guard Darion Allen, 5-9 guard Maurice Bonner and 6-1 guard Darryl Smith.
A talented group of freshmen recruits that as time goes on Ford believes will be contributors.
The freshmen include 6-5 forward Nathan Davis, 5-7 guard Jason Hammond (River View), 5-8 guard Blake Hoskins, 6-0 guard Christian Keller, 5-10 guard Joe Liptrap, 6-2 forward Adam Piciacchia and 6-1 guard Kolby Snyder.
Liptrap is another second generation Muskie basketball player following in the footsteps of his dad Pete.
"I believe we have some depth," Ford said. "I think we have 8-10 players that are capable of playing and competing in the conference. This group has great team chemistry, is close and works hard. Brown can shoot the ball but will have to improve on defense.
Hopefully, Kimble can be more consistent this year and has gained strength and Owings is always capable. We have some guys that as time goes on and they get comfortable in the program can contribute.
"It is going to take us 6-7 games to find our team," he cautioned. "We could have three or four starting lineups before we settle on a set team and it very important that we find a sixth man that we can rely on. Right now practice is intense with everyone trying to earn a spot, but we will be a work in progress."
With the added depth, Ford hopes the Muskies will be able to transition more this year and can play at a faster, more intense pace while trying to beat opponent's defense down the floor.
"With our added size," Ford said, "hopefully we can physically match up with people inside. We have to work within our system. Brown has long distance range, but we have to get a scorer in the low post. We may have to rely more on penetration to the basket. The freshman Keller comes from a great program at Newark and is strong and mature. We have some other good freshmen like Davis from Norwayne, but I'm not sure they are ready for varsity playing time, however we will play a JV schedule."
The veteran coach, assisted once again by Dave Kirby, views the added depth, team chemistry and attitude as strengths this year, but is concerned with where the scoring is going to come from.
"Defense and rebounding are constants," he said, "but shooting can vary from night-to-night. We are sort of the prototype of the OAC and need to gain experience."
Once again the OAC will be a grueling schedule with a lot of good teams that the Muskies will have to face both home and away.
"This is a solid conference with no bad teams," Ford stated. "There are no easy outs. Baldwin Wallace has a tremendous amount of talent and Marietta, John Carroll and Capital will all be strong again."
Muskingum opens the season with the OAC-PAC (Presidents Athletic Conference) Buzz Ridl Classic at Westminster Nov. 16-17 where the Muskies open against Thiel College on Friday at 6 p.m. and host Westminster on Saturday in a 4 p.m. contest.
The first home contest will be Nov. 20 when the Muskies host Bethany College that returns four starters from a team that has won back-to-back PAC championships and is a pre-season NCAA pick to finish well.
Washington & Jefferson is back on the schedule and Franciscan University, which the Muskies haven't played for a few years, returns to the schedule.