When men’s basketball coaches from the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference met Sunday for their preseason meeting, St. Ambrose wasn’t picked to finish in the top eight in the 14-team league.
Following a nine-win season — the program’s first single-digit victory total in 37 years — that didn’t surprise coach Ray Shovlain.
But, the Fighting Bees’ 35th-year coach believes his 2017-18 team has the potential to surprise.
“I like the way this team is working,’’ Shovlain said. “We have a lot of areas where we need to get better but these guys are putting in the work.’’
St. Ambrose returns just two players who averaged more than 20 minutes per game a year ago, guards Jake Meeske and Lee Hardrick.
Both averaged about eight points per game and will be at the core of what the Fighting Bees are attempting to accomplish.
Meeske, a sophomore from United Township, said St. Ambrose will continue to push the tempo but will work toward better shot selection within possessions.
“When we ran our offense last year, we did a decent job of shooting the ball. When we came down and put up the first shot we saw, the percentages weren’t good,’’ said Meeske, the Bees’ top returning scorer at 8.3 points per game.
“The coaches have talked a lot about that and we need to do a better job in our half-court sets. That’s where it starts for us.’’
Hardrick senses that as well and the senior, who averaged 7.8 points last season, likes the intensity he sees developing within a team that expects contributions from at least a half-dozen freshmen as well as junior college transfer Alex Portwood, a 6-foot-4 wing from Lincoln Land Community College.
“The sense of urgency and the intensity level, it’s different,’’ Hardrick said. “The guys who have come in are good players and they’ve helped create the right atmosphere for us to be successful.’’
Shovlain expects to ultimately settle on a rotation of 10 or 11 players, including newcomers who will provide the Bees with some size to complement returning forward Blake Buls and center Greg Wagner.
“There will be times when we will be able to put five guys on the floor between 6-3 and 6-5 who can run and can do some things inside,’’ Shovlain said. “We’re going to need contributions from a lot of players, both in terms of scoring and rebounding.’’
The Bees have added a 2-3 matchup zone to their repertoire of defenses and Shovlain hopes that will help keep opposing offenses more off-alance.
Wagner, a 6-7 senior, sees potential as St. Ambrose coaches mix and match lineup combinations throughout the preseason.
“The new guys have added a different dynamic to our team and there is some good, young talent here,’’ he said. “They’ll learn a lot this year, and I don’t think we’ll have that one or two guys who will be the guy, it’s going to take something from everybody.’’
Meeske believes that will be the best way for St. Ambrose to work its way back into the win column more frequently after losing seven games by six points or less a year ago.
“We all want to get back to the 20-win seasons that are the norm around here and after losing a lot of close games last season, it’s going to take a team effort to make it all work,’’ Meeske said.