If the belief that experienced athletes make a coach look good holds any truth, then University of Scranton head men's basketball coach Carl Danzig must like the position he's in entering the 2017-18 season.
Danzig returns four of five starters and seven of the team's top eight players from last year's squad that won the Landmark Conference championship and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The experience those players will lend to this season's squad is expected to boost the Royals to similar success.
Scranton was the overwhelming favorite in the Landmark Conference preseason poll of head coaches, which was released Tuesday morning. The Royals received seven first-place votes and 70 points, well ahead of the other seven schools in the conference. Moravian was second with 45 points, followed by Susquehanna's 44 and Catholic with 42 and the other first-place vote. Juniata (29 points) was fifth, followed by Drew (21), Goucher (12) and Elizabethtown (9).
The Royals open the season on Friday when they host the Hilton Scranton Invitational in the Long Center. York (Pa.) faces Pitt.-Bradford in the opener at 5:30 p.m., followed by PSU-Berks against Scranton at 7:30 p.m. Heading into the final week of preseason, Danzig was pleased with what he had seen so far.
"Preseason's been going well, the energy's been good," he said. "A lot of it is attributed to our senior leadership. Those guys have done a great job of making sure that everybody comes to practice ready to work and maximizing the day."
The five-man senior class he referred to includes all four returning starters – guards Kevin Doolan (Basking Ridge, N.J./Ridge), Ethan Danzig (Clarks Green, Pa./Abington Heights) and Chris McCullough (Greenlawn, N.Y./Harborfields), and forward Drew Schankweiler (Mechanicsburg, Pa./Mechanicsburg). Reserve guard Mitch Cross (Marriottsville, Md./Loyola-Blakefield) rounds out the class after playing a key role off the bench the past two seasons.
As a group, the five seniors have played in 347 career games, including 192 starts.
Doolan, Danzig and McCullough will form one of the most experienced backcourts in NCAA Division III this season. Doolan has started 77 of his 81 career games, Danzig has started 56 times in 83 games and McCullough is coming off his first season as a starter last year, when he started all 29 games.
"Those guys have been through the battles already multiple times, so when things get difficult, they're pretty well versed in how to deal with those difficult situations that come up during games. It's a real luxury," Danzig said of his senior backcourt.
Doolan was a second-team all-Landmark Conference choice last season after leading the conference in assists with 131. He added 9.1 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 46.8 percent from the field. And perhaps most importantly, he took care of the basketball, posting a stellar assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.2-to-1 with 13 games with one or no turnovers.
"Kevin is obviously a dynamic player and has been starting for four years," Danzig said. "He's worked really hard and it's going to be fun to see how those years of experience come together for him. He's had a terrific career so far and I'll be super surprised if it doesn't continue for his senior year."
Ethan Danzig was also a second-team all-conference selection last season after he set a single-season school record for 3-pointers made with 81. He averaged 12.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 steals, and shot 46.4 percent from the field, including 45.5 percent from 3-point range, ninth-best in school history.
He was at his best in four postseason games, averaging 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists while shooting 63.2 percent from 3-point range.
"It's been a lot of fun for me to see him grow and mature as a player and as a person," Coach Danzig said of his son, Ethan. "(He's gone) from a kid who only played his senior year in high school to now he's probably going to break most of the 3-point shooting records before he leaves here. That's directly attributed to his hard work, his understanding of what he needs to do to get better each year so he can add more to the team and do more for the program.
"It's never easy to be a coach's son. He understands that he has to bring a different level of work every day so people can't whisper over his shoulder that he's only playing because he's the coach's son."
McCullough will be out until after Christmas as he recovers from an ankle injury suffered in an NCAA Tournament second-round loss to Williams in March. But when he returns, the Royals will welcome back his high-energy play on defense, his improved shooting and a knack for hitting the big shot. He has made game-winning shots just before the buzzer in each of the past two seasons.
"He just does a little bit of everything," Danzig said of McCullough. "His athleticism, his quickness, his speed on the court, his ability to cause havoc defensively not only guarding his guy but playing the passing lanes, seeing the game and causing steals and turnovers. What I've been really thrilled with him is it that he's improved his game so much on the offensive end. He can shoot, he can penetrate of the dribble, he can pass and he's really developed himself into a pretty good perimeter shooter."
Schankweiler returns in the middle and will have a chance to assert himself after the graduation of two-time Landmark Conference Defensive Player of the Year John Vitkus. Schankweiler started all 29 games last season and averaged 7.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 0.6 assists while shooting 54.4 percent from the field. He scored in double figures 10 times, including an impressive 18-point, 16-rebound effort at Hobart on Nov. 30.
"I always think about him like an anchor," Danzig said. "He's just really solid and he's consistent. He doesn't get too high and he doesn't get too low. He's another guy who has worked really hard.
"I think people will be surprised with his ability to take the ball off the bounce. He's comfortable shooting the 16-footer. He's going to be really solid for us inside. He can use both hands and the kid can bench press a house, so I know the opposing defenders won't like playing against him, but that's why he put in the work."
Cross will likely continue to fill the role of the marksman off the bench after he averaged 5.6 points and 1.2 rebounds while shooting 42.0 percent from 3-point range last season. His 42 made 3-pointers were second-most on the team. "I think he's really settled into the role that we need him in," Danzig said.
Swingman Jack Connelly (Ellington, Conn./Ellington) is the lone junior on the roster and will see time this season at power forward, a new spot for him. He played in 27 games off the bench over the past two seasons, mostly at guard and small forward.
"With the graduation of John (Vitkus) and trying to figure out how to get Jack on the floor because he does offer us a lot – he's athletic, he's quick, he's got good guard skills – we decided to kind of make him a mismatch guy," Danzig said. "So far that has worked in practice. He's a really tough kid, plays bigger than he is, so I think he's going to be a handful for opposing teams because of his ability to play outside-inside."
Two sophomores saw extensive time last season – guard Kyle DeVerna (Rockville Centre, N.Y./Kellenberg Memorial) and forward Matthew Mancuso (Bridgewater, N.J./Bridgewater-Raritan). DeVerna played both guard spots and also saw some occasional time as a third guard on the floor. He averaged 6.8 points, 1.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 0.8 steals in 20.0 minutes while shooting 45.2 percent from the field.
"We expect him in the same role coming off the bench, although that could change," Danzig said. "He brings a toughness, a good IQ and a good understanding of the game. He'll play multiple positions for us. I think he's more comfortable this year. As a sophomore, I think he understands me better, he understands the game. I think he fits better with the team now just through those understandings."
Mancuso will see more time in the middle after he came on strong at the end of the season. He finished his freshman year averaging 5.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 0.5 steals and 0.4 blocks while shooting 50.6 percent from the floor.
"He's a versatile forward who can play inside-outside," Danzig said. "He'll be able to shoot the 3 for us and he's a fun player to watch because he can dunk at will. He's a kid who's gotten into the weight room and improved his body so he can handle the wear and tear inside."
Sophomores Jack Dreisbach (Allentown, Pa./Parkland), Danny Doolan (Basking Ridge, N.J./Ridge), Ryan Vitkus (Mahopac, N.Y./Mahopac) and Lucas Hackett (Millington, N.J./Watchung Hills) will also provide depth in different roles. Dreisbach could see time at both guard spots and small forward, Doolan provides a long-range shooting threat, and Vitkus and Hackett add size in the middle for the Royals.
Danzig also welcomes a five-player freshman class that will contribute at different points in the season. Guards Brian Monaghan (Florham Park, N.J./Morristown Beard) and Jack Stafford (Plainview, N.Y./Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK) will compete for time in the backcourt while forwards Ryan Braun (North Wales, Pa./Lansdale Catholic) and Nolan Genasevich (Sugarloaf, Pa./Home School) will provide versatility in the front court. Guard Logan Bailey (Scranton, Pa./Scranton Prep) will sit out this season while recovering from an offseason knee injury.
Despite the Royals being chosen as the overwhelming favorite in the Landmark Conference, Danzig expects the typical tight race when things heat up in January and February. In the non-conference schedule, matchups at Widener (Nov. 21), at Cabrini (Nov. 29), home with Neumann (Dec. 4), at The College of New Jersey (Dec. 16) and home with Ursinus (Dec. 19) are among the key games to keep an eye on.
Scranton will open its season on Friday, Nov. 18, when the Royals host the Hilton Scranton Invitational in the Long Center. Action starts at 5:30 p.m. when York (Pa.) takes on Pitt.-Bradford and continues at 7:30 p.m. when the Royals face PSU-Berks. Saturday's third-place game tips off at 2 p.m., followed by the championship game at 4 p.m.