CLAREMONT, Calif. - The CMS men's basketball program has been accustomed to being among the SCIAC favorites every season. In fact, in the 11 seasons since 2008-09, the Stags have finished first eight times and finished second twice.
Which is why CMS looks so out of place being picked third in the SCIAC preseason poll, behind defending champion Pomona-Pitzer and a Redlands team that finished strong last winter and returns four starters. The projection isn't out of line on paper, since CMS finished second last year and graduated its leading scorer (Nicolas Segura Dobjanschi) and point guard (Mark Sui), but the Stags are used to contending and don't expect this season to be any different.
"We're ready to play," said senior forward Maxwell Kirsch. "I think we have a renewed level of commitment. We have some great young guys in here, and can combine that with a lot veterans, and just that mix of experience and youth has brought a new energy and hopefully we can push the envelope and do something new."
In fact, the season-opening Tip-Off Classic in Spokane, Washington this weekend serves as a mental reinforcement of where this program has been. The Stags open the year at Whitworth, which they defeated in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in both 2017 and 2018 before falling to Whitman in the second round both times.
"It's kind of a good thing to go full circle," said Kirsch of returning to Washington for the third time in his career. "That's where freshman and sophomore year ended, and hopefully senior year we will start there and go a lot further than we have in the past."
CMS returns three veteran starters from last season's squad, led by All-SCIAC guard Miles President, who has started all 80 games in his Stag career. President averaged 11.3 points per game last year and is a 42 percent three-point shooter over his first three seasons, and he will likely serve as the primary option offensively this season, while also continuing as a lockdown defender. His efforts defensively helped the Stags lead the nation in points allowed last season (60.3 ppg).
Junior guard Mitchell Kirsch, Maxwell's younger brother, was also a key member of last year's starting backcourt, averaging 5.2 points and leading CMS with 2.8 assists per game playing mostly off the ball. He could see more of the primary ball-handling duties this season, although CMS has plenty of backcourt options to utilize.
Senior JD Levine took a big step forward last year as the first point guard off the bench and could be poised to move into the starting lineup. Levine averaged 4.0 points and 1.3 assists per game in 12 minutes per contest and can stretch defenses with his three-point shooting ability. Sophomore Charles Meng also got some valuable playing time at point guard as a freshman last year and showed promise, displaying a fearlessness stepping up and making plays when he was called on.
Junior Chukwueloka Oti showed flashes of strong potential as a scoring guard last year and could see more minutes this season, with his ability to both shoot the three-pointer and drive to the basket, while sophomore Alec Sinek will be looking to increase his role with a full season under his belt. The Stags also have several newcomers to their backcourt who could contribute immediately, including graduate student Grant Arthur, who previously played at Cal State Los Angeles and has two years remaining. First-years Brian Kenyon and Josh Angle will also look to make an immediate impact.
At the wing forward position, Maxwell Kirsch will look to fill some of the role that Segura Dobjanschi held last season as a veteran. Kirsch can stretch the defense with his shooting, at one point making 10 straight shots, including six three-pointers, and is sound with the ball, committing only 11 turnovers all year and having a 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio. Senior Kele Mkpado has the potential to be a sparkplug with his athleticism around the rim at both ends, while sophomore TJ Askew also showed plenty of promise with his minutes last year, and is looking to have a larger impact as a sophomore.
Adding to the CMS options on the wing are a trio of talented newcomers, including Joey Ganley of Minnesota and California natives Jordan Hunt and Kiran Kruse.
In the post, CMS has a bevy of options and has the flexibility to play with two post players and attack the glass if matchups favor a bigger line-up. Two seniors return who formed a strong rotation at the five last year in Jeremy Horn and George Walker. After coming off the bench the first two seasons, Horn stepped into the starting lineup on opening day and made an immediate impact, earning SCIAC Player of the Week honors after the University of Chicago's opening tournament. He averaged 10.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game and is a match-up problem for most SCIAC teams at 6-10, 240.
Off the bench, CMS used Walker last season, who often changed games with his hustle and relentlessness on the boards. Walker is five inches shorter than Horn at 6-5, but would get rebounds on his second and third efforts and was often on the floor in crunch time due to his ability to keep possessions for the Stags. He averaged 4.5 points and 5.4 rebounds last season and will be looking to build off his breakthrough season from a year ago.
Sophomores Sam Johnson and Luke Webb are both 6-8 and give CMS plenty of added frontcourt options. Johnson earned valuable experience as a rookie last winter and added 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason, while Webb missed most of the year with an injury, but is healthier this year and poised to contribute. First-year Rhett Carter is another big, strong option at 6-9, 240, who will be looking to carve out playing time in his first season.
The mixture of veterans and newcomers gives the Stags an abundance of depth and the feeling that they can play a multitude of styles.
"We have a lot of veterans coming back and some young guys who are really ready to get after it," said Walker. "So we are really looking forward to it."
It's also the last go-round for the senior class, which was a part of two NCAA Tournaments as freshman and sophomores and want to get back to that level again.
"It's gone by so quickly," said Walker of his career. "And just with this being the last year with my best friends and guys I've grown really close to, we just want to win the SCIAC and make a run in the NCAA Tournament. So we're doing all we can to get there."