Core principles still at heart of Scots’ hoops identity

Core principles still at heart of Scots’ hoops identity

Image Credit: The College of Wooster

The first normal-looking season of The College of Wooster men’s basketball under the direction of Doug Cline is rapidly approaching. While there has been a changing of the guard in the program, many of the key principles that have resulted in Wooster ranking as the winningest NCAA Div. III Team of the 2000s (.818; 525-117) are still at the core identity of Fighting Scots’ basketball.

“I just want to continue doing the things that coach (Steve) Moore emphasized for 33 years at Wooster,” said Cline, who was Moore’s assistant for more than two decades after a stellar playing career for Moore. “That’s trying to be the best defensive team in the conference, hopefully one of the better ones in the country. That’s being a team that takes good shots and shoots a high percentage on offense because they don’t take bad shots. That’s being one of the better rebounding teams — and on top of all of that, playing as a team.

“Nobody cares who gets the credit. Those are things I learned from coach Moore, and it’s been very, very successful here.”

Wooster had limited practice and competition opportunities during the 2020-21 academic year, and Cline’s preaching how essential it is to “take advantage of those opportunities,” especially with just six players who were part of Scots’ basketball prior to COVID-19 remaining in the program.

“Whether it’s a freshman, sophomore or transfer, a lot of guys are new to what a regular basketball season is here at Wooster and what Wooster basketball is really all about,” Cline said. “I think we have really good potential to be a really good team. We found some things out in the limited time we played last year.

“It gave the young guys a little bit of a taste of what Wooster basketball is about. They got a feeling of how tense these games are, how physical the games are. Now it’s all about coming together, becoming a better defensive team, becoming a better rebounding team and learning how to play with each other.”

Wooster does have a strong senior class that has significant experience. Brandon Styers headlines the returnees as a first-team All-Great Lakes Region selection a season ago, and he ranked sixth nationally and third among Div. III guards in field-goal percentage (67.2%, 41-of-61).

“I don’t know if you can have a better leader,” said Cline of Styers, who scored 16.6 points and grabbed 6.3 rebounds a game last year. “He’s not the most vocal guy, and that’s alright. Some guys are like that. He leads by example. I don’t know if we’ve had a guy who works as hard as him in season and out of season.

“He really elevated his game last year. He knew it was his time. He put in all the work, bought in and is a more confident player. Hopefully the younger guys will follow his lead and work like he does. If they follow his lead, we can be a really good team.”

Najee Hardaway, a two-year starter, gives the Scots another senior presence with significant game experience within the program. Thanks to an abundance of depth, especially down low, Hardaway projects to move back to a more natural position on the wing after playing a lot out of position inside due to need.

“Najee is a very team player and a very coachable guy,” Cline said. “He has to be more consistent at both ends. That’s what we are trying to get him to do. He has all kinds of ability and has shone through in big games for us in the past. We have big expectations, and we want Najee to take the next step by becoming a more consistent player at both ends. We want him to elevate his defense and rebounding, and we need to take advantage of his athleticism in transition.”

Fan favorite Khaylen Mahdi is fully healthy and brings a relentless pursuit to the team on the defensive end in the back court while seniors Hamilton Johnson and JG Gillard return after contributing during their time with the program.

Elsewhere, junior guard Tayler McNeal came in as a transfer last year and led the team in scoring at 16.7 points per game and was one of Div. III’s best when it came to drawing charges. Sophomores Mitch Heilman, Brennan South and Carter Warstler return on the perimeter, and sophomores Jake Hoffman and JJ Cline give the Scots versatility.

Wooster’s had really good post players throughout its history, but this year’s group could be extra special due to the depth the Scots have in the interior, something that was lacking in recent years. Within that depth is a wide range of skill sets without much drop-off in size.

The 6-5 Gillard gives the Scots a senior presence down low while rising sophomores in 6-6 Eric Mudd and 6-5 Elijah Meredith showed great potential during the limited 2020-21 season. The Scots added a big boost down low with a pair of 6-8 transfers in Nick Everett (sophomore) and Turner Kurt (junior) while 6-6 junior Nate Andrews could help out as well.

“Most of the guys who will play in the post for us are sophomores who didn’t have much experience last year or transfers who weren’t here before,” Cline said. “They’ve bought in to posting up, something that is a lost art any more. They’ve bought in and have been very coachable.

“I don’t think a lot of teams have the depth we have inside. We can go way deeper than four. We might not be quite as tall past four, but not bad with guys who can rebound, play post defense and score in the post. We always think you can’t be the most successful team you can be unless you have post options.”

Transfer Sabe Doolittle (6-4, sophomore) and first-year Jamir Billings (5-11) round out the Scots projected to contribute on the varsity level.

Wooster opened the season with the program’s annual Al Van Wie/Wooster Rotary Classic on Nov. 19-20 with Saint Vincent College, Spalding University and Ripon College rounding out the field.

Prior to Thanksgiving, the Scots go to Mount Union on Nov. 24 for a 6 p.m. game, and North Coast Athletic Conference play starts on Nov. 30 when Wooster visits Oberlin College for a 7:30 p.m. tip-off. In December Wooster heads to Santa Cruz, California for two games that will be played at Kaiser Permanente Arena, home of the Golden State Warriors’ NBA G League affiliate.

Later in the month, one of small college basketball’s longest-running events is back as Wooster is set to host the 58th E.M. “Mose” Hole/Wooster Kiwanis Classic. The Scots welcome La Roche College, University of Lynchburg and Muskingum University to Timken Gymnasium for two nights, Dec. 29-30.

NCAC play will resume in January with key dates including a home date with Wittenberg University on Jan. 15 at 7 p.m., Senior Day against Wabash College on Feb. 12 at 2 p.m. and a road trip to Wittenberg on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. to cap the regular season.