The St. James basketball team had a strong season in 2018. They played their way into the District Championship before falling short against Father Tolton. This season, they're dealt a new challenge, as head coach Ben Smith has to find replacements for his entire starting lineup after all five graduated last year.
"It's been a little bit different," said coach Smith of the offseason. "Last year coming in with all those guys, I don't wanna say we didn't have to go over the basics stuff, but they'd just been in it so long that we could just touch on it and keep moving and this year we've had to spend a little bit more time on a few basic things, defensive rotations primarily. They're picking it up maybe better than I expected, but it's just been a little bit different."
While the Tigers will have a new look this season, they will have a few familiar faces. Tyler Recker was the number one player off the bench and played about as much as anyone in the starting five. Look for him to be a key player for the Tigers on both sides of the basketball.
"I think he'll do well. He's such a good athlete and he's so explosive," said coach Smith of Recker. "He looks, at least to me, stronger and quicker, a little bit more physical this year than he was last year. I think (football) has really helped. It'll be an adjustment for him whenever gameplans are adjusted around him both for us and for teams that we're going up against, they'll probably try to take him out first. I think he'll adjust well."
Another player that was a regular part of the rotation last season is Mason Parker. He saw a lot of time at the point guard position last season and was a defensive specialist for the Tigers. He'll transition into more minutes with relative ease, as he has plenty of endurance as a distance runner in cross country and track.
"Mason is such a heady player, he's smart," said coach Smith. "He's got great skills, but he also understands what's happening in the game, understands what we're wanting to do. We've been really encouraging him to be vocal and taking control of stuff and he's done a really good job of that."
Some other players that saw increased roles as the season went on last year were Tate Whitener, Austin Ridenhour and Andrew Branson. All three of them will look to play big roles this season.
"(Whitener) has looked really good...he looks stronger, more athletic, just taking that leap from your junior year to your senior year. He does a lot of really good things. I think he's going to step right in and be a really nice player for us," said the St. James head coach. "Andrew is a lot like Mason, the fact that he's where he's supposed to be, he knows what to do, he's a good player and he's got good skills. He's really vocal, which is nice. He's kind of taken on a leadership role as a junior.
"Austin is just an outstanding athlete," continued Smith. "He runs so well, he jumps extremely well. He's another one that's a gym rat. He's got really good ball skills. I look for him to have a really good year for us. I think he's going to surprise some people."
The biggest hole to fill for St. James at the moment is down low. Whitener is a forward, but he's one of the only forwards that saw any playing time last season outside of a handful of minutes from Gavin Caldwell, Dante Poole and Logan Chick. The Tigers are still ironing out how their rotation down low is going to look.
"We'll just kind of have to see. We're going to look different in a lot of ways. Our team speed, in the 15 or 16 years I've been doing this, is probably the fastest I've ever coached right now. We'll have to make up for some of our lack of size with speed," said coach Smith. "Tate is going to have to take on a big role inside. Issac Bradshaw came out this year, he's a senior. He's about 6'6", so we'll have a nice big body there. Dante Poole, who's really long and athletic, he's going to be in there some.
"It won't be the same," continued the Tiger head coach. "We're not going to be able to be able to just play somebody off the block and say we're going to stay here. We're going to have to find other ways to do it."
A recent trend at every level of basketball has been running smaller lineups and the Tigers will likely do a lot of that this season. Coach Smith expects his team to be strong around the perimeter and they'll lean on that talent.
"We're going to have to. It'll be kinda position-less. We'll probably be more perimeter oriented. That's just going to be the nature of trying to fit a scheme around our talent," said the St. James head coach. "We shoot the ball well, so that's going to help. Fortunately, we're not real small and can't shoot, we shoot well and then we have some guys that can get in the paint off the drive."
When teams need to replace an entire starting lineup, one of the top concerns becomes having some guys on the bench they feel that they can turn to, especially when you run at the pace that the Tigers like to run on both sides of the ball. St. James has a number of players that should be able to make an impact as bench players, such as Drew Mortiz, Isaac Helterbrand and Kadin Guese.
"We're pretty deep. I think we can go eight to 10 deep and not lose anything," said coach Smith. "The Moritz kid, who's a really good athlete and a heady player. Of course Dante, Isaac Helterbrand, Kadin Guese has looked good as a sophomore, Gavin Caldwell has been in for a little bit now and has looked really good. You look from one to 10, we don't have a guy that's slow. All those kids can run, it's just going to be a matter of getting up and down the floor and defending and getting stops so we can run."
Coach Smith thinks team will be able to succeed this year because they're willing to put in the work. As a shorter team, one of their biggest focus points has been rebounding, but coach Smith says they're hungry to improve.
"We'll go through a practice and we're not doing something well and we'll say we have to get this better. They'll come in the next day and say this is our focus, this is where we have to improve today," said the Tiger head coach. "You can see them wanting to be good. They're not just coming in and going through the motions, which I've had teams do, or give lip service to being good and wanting to do these things. These guys will do the little things they have to do to get better.
"I'm really optimistic about it. You wouldn't think that after losing five seniors," continued Smith. "You'd think this is a rebuilding year, but I'm not really approaching it that way. I really feel like we have a chance to be really dang good. I don't see why we can't compete for the conference and the District. I really don't."
St. James will see a new District this year after facing an extremely tough District the last few seasons. The Tigers will see Belle, Bourbon, Cuba, Dixon, Grandview, Kingston and Steelville in that District this year.
"Steelville is going to be awful good. They're bringing back pretty much everybody back except one and I think they won 23 or 24 games last year. I would think that they would be the preseason one in that District," said coach Smith. "I think we can compete in it."
St. James opens their season with the Sullivan Tournament, which kicks off on Monday, Nov. 26.