By: Mason Nesbitt, Sports Information Director
The Master’s University men’s basketball team knows the question is inevitable. The Mustangs aren’t running from it.
After consecutive first-round exits from the NAIA national tournament, one as the No. 1 overall seed, players say they don’t feel any extra pressure to advance further this season. They see the year as an opportunity, and they will use the past simply as motivation.
Mostly, they’re focused on the here and now, a frame of mind that has them focused on a home exhibition game Thursday against NCAA Division 2 Concordia University Irvine.
“I think in sports, things happen,” said senior center Tim Soares. “You have to be able to brush it off and start again. It’s a whole new year, a whole new us. We’re probably going to have more of a chip on our shoulders, more than ever, but we need to be ready for each game.”
The Mustangs – ranked No. 2 in the NAIA Division 1 preseason coaches poll – have gone 83-14 over the last three seasons. They’ve won back-to-back Golden State Athletic Conference regular season titles and three straight conference tournament crowns. They enter the year on a 37-game home winning streak.
Extending the run of dominance starts with Soares, the team’s 6-foot-11 anchor on defense and multifaceted star on offense.
Already a two-time NAIA All-American, Soares spent the offseason getting into the best physical shape of his career. Teammates have taken notice.
“He’s been a lot more physical,” senior Brock Gardner said of Soares, who averaged career highs of 15.8 points and 8.8 rebounds last year and made 23 three-pointers. “In past years, I feel like he got pushed off his spot at times. This year he’s got a solid foundation with his feet and his footwork has been amazing. He’s holding his ground and his post moves have been great.”
Gardner and Soares figure to form one of the NAIA’s most formidable front courts. Gardner has operated largely in the shadows of All-American and All-GSAC teammates the last two years, quietly putting up numbers and displaying athleticism that would make him the star on any number of teams. This year, he figures to shine more often.
“Now is his chance to come out and be one of the guys,” said head coach Kelvin Starr. “So I’m excited for him to be more featured. … Brock can do a bit of everything.”
Gardner and Soares are only half of a position group the Mustangs hope will overwhelm opponents down low. Master’s also has Michael Taylor, the team’s best athlete at 6-6, 230 pounds and a player with double-double potential every night.
“He’s a freight train coming toward you,” Soares said of Taylor. “No one likes freight trains coming toward them.”
Master’s also added Sam Boone, a 6-7 senior transfer from NCAA Division 2 Seattle Pacific University.
Boone has impressed teammates with feathery midrange jumpers and ball-handling skills, along with his physicality in the paint. He’s impressed his coach with how he’s embraced a role coming off the bench.
“He really has a good attitude about it, which helps us,” Starr said. “It gives us a lot of depth physically. I don’t know if there are too many teams that have a Brock, Tim, Sam and Mike in the front court.”
For the first time in recent memory, the Mustangs have a predominantly young backcourt. Master’s graduated All-Americans Lawrence Russell and Hansel Atencia over the last two years, and this year’s group will be led by senior Darryl McDowell-White and sophomore Jordan Starr, the team’s two best three-point shooters a year ago.
Junior DJ Wilson, a community college transfer, and freshmen Anton Mozga and Jay Turley will provide depth.
“I think our perimeter will be balanced,” Kelvin Starr said. “We have good basketball players. Darryl and Jordan and DJ are very good basketball players. I don’t think any of them, in and of themselves, are like a Hansel or Lawrence. They have their own identify. I think some of them can grow into that role. But starting off the year, we’ll probably have to do it by committee.”
Ultimately, Kelvin Starr doesn’t expect his team’s identity to change.
“We want to be a great defensive team that can hold people below 40 percent,” he said, “and then get up and down the floor and score at a high pace and average over 90 points.”