With a first-team all-American among three returning starters from last season's 23-9 team, expectations are understandably high for the St. Ambrose men's basketball team.
But nobody expects more from the Fighting Bees than the Fighting Bees themselves, something coach Ray Shovlain doesn't mind one bit.
"We're coming off of a good year, a normal year with 23 wins, but at the end of the season I didn't sense that everybody was satisfied," Shovlain said. "They made individual commitments to get better in the offseason and when they returned this fall, the results of that commitment showed."
St. Ambrose players returned to practice this fall bigger, faster, stronger than when last season ended.
The Fighting Bees will build around two returning senior starters, 6-foot-6 all-American forward Mike Kennedy and 6-5 Chris Donnelly.
The pair combined to average 32.3 points and 13.2 rebounds per game a year ago, and both will be counted to lead a team that ranked 13th nationally in the preseason NAIA poll and has been picked as the favorite in what is expected to be a tight race in the Midwest Collegiate Conference.
"There were a few games last year where we didn't show up with the focus we needed," Kennedy said. "We can't let that happen this season. Every game matters."
Shovlain said Kennedy has gained strength from a year ago and brings versatility to a team that he considers one of the deepest he has had to work with in recent seasons.
"He doesn't have to try to do it all by himself. We expect Mike and Chris to lead, and we feel fortunate to have two unbelievable senior leaders, but we have a lot of players who will contribute," Shovlain said.
Donnelly sees a chance for as many 12, 13 players to see time as the season progresses.
"This is the deepest team that I have been on here. We have a lot of new guys and they will all help," said Donnelly, an all-conference performance last season. "It's going to be a team effort."
St. Ambrose will be without its third returning starter, guard Justin Blondell, for the opening weeks of the season. The junior from Moline suffered a knee injury during summer-league play that did not heal as anticipated, and he underwent arthroscopic surgery Oct. 11.
"I'm working to get back as quickly as I can. The rehab is going well, but I want to be back on the floor," Blondell said. "This is going to be a good team, a strong team, and I want to be out there as a part of it."
Shovlain sees contributions coming from a lot of different directions, including from returning reserves Josh Hutton, Lorenzo Fiol and P.J. Murphy and from a handful of players who were not on the floor for the Fighting Bees a year ago.
That group includes seniors Nate Thomas and P.J. Murphy as well as Marquez Davis, a former Davenport North prep who transferred from Lincoln University for his senior season, and junior-college transfer Andy Supergan, the tallest player on the St. Ambrose roster at 6-7.
"We have some other first-year guys who can help, too," Shovlain said. "I like the make-up of this team. We're going to challenge them with a tough schedule and a lot of road games early, but there is a lot to like about these guys."
The Fighting Bees play eight of their first nine games on the road, including exhibitions against NCAA Division I programs St. Louis and Chicago State during the opening week of the season.
"We're going to have a chance to grow as a team and playing away from home, we'll see different styles," Donnelly said. "It's something that can help us in the long run."
AT A GLANCE
2010-11 record: 23-9, 10-6 Midwest Collegiate Conference (fourth place)
Coach: Ray Shovlain (532-378 entering 29th season)
Returning starters: G Justin Blondell, 6-2, jr., 6.3 ppg, 1.7 rpg; G/F Chris Donnelly, 6-5, sr., 12.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg; F Mike Kennedy, 6-6, sr., 20 ppg, 7.5 rpg
Returning reserves: G Lorenzo Fiol, 6-0, soph., 2.5 ppg, 1.4 rpg; G Josh Hutton, 5-11, jr., 1.8 ppg, 0.2 rpg; G/F P.J. Murphy, 6-3, sr., 1.5 ppg, 1.0 rpg
Newcomers: G Eric Adkins, 6-3, fr.; G Ben Alpen, 6-2, fr.; G Marquez Davis, 5-10, sr.; G Nicholas Frazier, 6-2, fr.; F Adam Koncel, 6-6, fr.; G Sean O'Reilly, 6-0, sr.; G Phil Sexton, 6-0, jr.; G/F Andy Supergan, 6-7, jr.; F Nate Thomas, 6-4, sr.; F Stanley Waldroup, 6-4, soph.
November - 3, at Hannibal-LaGrange, 7 p.m.; 5, at St. Louis, 1 p.m.; 7, at Chicago State, 7 p.m.; 11, at Dakota Wesleyan, 8 p.m.; 12, vs. South Dakota Tech at Dakota Wesleyan Classic, 4 p.m.; 15, Emmaus, 7 p.m.; 18, at St. Xavier, 8 p.m.; 19, vs. TBA at St. Xavier Classic, TBA; 22, at Harris Stowe, 7 p.m.; 29, Augustana, 7:30 p.m.
December - 3, Ashford, 3 p.m.; 7, AIB, 7:30 p.m.; 10, at William Penn, 3 p.m.; 17, Harris Stowe, 2 p.m.; 20-22, at St. Xavier Tournament, TBA
January - 4, at Clarke, 7:30 p.m.; 7, at Grand View, 3 p.m.; 11, Mount Mercy, 7:30 p.m.; 14, Waldorf, 3 p.m.; 18, at Viterbo, 7:30 p.m.; 21, Iowa Wesleyan, 3 p.m.; 23, at Ashford, 7:30 p.m.; 26, William Penn, 7:30 p.m.; 28, at AIB, 3 p.m.
February - 1, Clarke, 7:30 p.m.; 4, Grand View, 3 p.m.; 8, at Mount Mercy, 7:30 p.m.; 11, at Waldorf, 3 p.m.; 15, Viterbo, 7:30 p.m.; 18, at Iowa Wesleyan, 3 p.m.