With 4 starters back, Scots favored to win NCAC

With 4 starters back, Scots favored to win NCAC

Image Credit: Matt Dilyard

NCAA Div. III’s winningest team of the 2000s may be the deepest it has been in recent years, and the Fighting Scots are seeking to reclaim the North Coast Athletic Conference championship and author another March to remember.

Competition with up to nine games against teams ranked or receiving votes in the preseason D3hoops.com Top-25 Poll will challenge The College of Wooster men’s basketball team, but with four starters returning, the Scots are more than armed with the tools to succeed.

Wooster’s keys to success start down low, where the Scots feature a deep post group, led by returning All-NCAC senior Turner Kurt, who ranked second on the team with 14.2 points per game a season ago. Returning starter Elijah Meredith, a junior, possesses one of the top all-around scoring arsenals in the NCAC, and junior Nick Everett emerged as a complement to the starting duo down the stretch with 11.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per night over the final three weeks of the 2021-22 season.

“Turner, Elijah and Nick are a big part of our program,” third-year head coach Doug Cline said. “They were a big reason for our success last year. They did not play a lot on the inside prior to getting here, and they bought in and really improved. A lot of teams don’t have size, have post players and emphasize post play. That is a big part of our program. We are very fortunate to have multiple guys who can catch the ball in the post, go one on one and score, and make the right decisions if the opposition doubles down.”

First-year EJ Kapihe, a first-team all-state honoree, is one of the latest additions to the post group, joining senior JG Gillard and junior Eric Mudd, who already know what that work entails. First-years Jonathan Diederich and Jaiden Cox-Holloway are two more additions to the forward line with good length.

At guard, sophomore Jamir Billings gave the Scots an immediate elite-level point player at both ends of the floor, evidenced by a single-season program record 84 steals and 164 assists, the second-most in program history.

“Jamir is a very talented player and was a big part of our success,” Cline said. “There are still things he has to work on to improve as a player, which will improve our team. He has very quick hands and is very good with getting deflections. He was two assists away from the school record but had too many turnovers. He’d be the first to admit that. His assist-to-turnover ratio being better is a big key to this season.”

Fifth-year senior Najee Hardaway is Wooster’s fourth returning starter and is one of the program’s most versatile players, thanks to a combination of strength and athleticism that lends itself to one of the top all-around offensive skill sets on the team and the ability to guard one through five on the defensive end.

Juniors Carter Warstler and JJ Cline round out the returnees from last year’s rotation. Warstler possesses game-changing defensive abilities. Cline, the coach’s son, is someone who the Scots can utilize in multiple positions, whether that be on the wing or matched up against bigger opponents.

Establishing the depth and finding the fifth starter are things still being evaluated by the coaching staff. There are plenty of candidates across the board with numerous veterans including juniors Mitch Heilman, Jake Hoffman and Brennan South, who all saw action last year.

Other newcomers to the program include sophomore Jayden Prince, a transfer from Case Western Reserve University, and first-years Isaiah Johnson, Isaac Roeder and Vinni Veikalas.

Wooster’s season started Nov. 18-19 with the annual Al Van Wie/Wooster Rotary Classic while a home game with seventh-ranked University of Mount Union is set for Nov. 23 at 6 p.m. NCAC play starts for the preseason conference favorite on Nov. 30 at home against Hiram College.

Following two road conference games, Wooster will welcome 11th-ranked University of Rochester to Timken Gymnasium for a 2:15 p.m. game on Dec. 10, then head to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida to host the Steve Moore Sunshine Shootout Dec. 19-20. The E.M. “Mose” Hole/Wooster Kiwanis Classic, one of small college basketball’s oldest tournaments, will take place Dec. 29-30 at Timken Gymnasium, and the field this year includes Albion College, Carnegie Mellon University and Heidelberg University.

Other key dates include the 125th all-time Wooster-Wittenberg game on Jan. 14 at Witt and the regular-season finale at home against Wabash College on Feb. 18.

“You are going to be challenged every game in the NCAC,” Cline said. “Everyone has good players. The league keeps getting better and better every year. I think the league will come down to the end. We have a very good nonconference schedule that will hopefully prepare us for the NCAC.”