The University of Scranton men's basketball team is expected to be in a familiar position this season – right in the thick of things for a Landmark Conference championship.
Head coach Carl Danzig's Royals are tied for second in the preseason poll of the conference's eight head coaches, which was released Thursday afternoon. The Royals received 52 points, including one first-place vote, tying with Catholic (52 points, one first-place vote) for second and behind only Susquehanna, which received four first-place votes and 60 points.
Juniata received 41 points and two first-place votes to finish fourth, followed by Moravian (24 points), Drew (17), Goucher (15) and Elizabethtown (11).
"I don't get too worked up about preseason stuff," said Danzig, who is beginning his 16th season at Scranton. "It's not how you start, it's how you finish. We've generally been 1-2-3-4 since I've been here, so it's great. It gives our guys a shot in the arm as far as expectations, but they already know that stuff."
The Royals are coming off a 2015-16 season in which they finished 19-8 and received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after falling to Susquehanna in a Landmark Conference semifinal. The NCAA appearance was the team's third straight and 27th overall.
The latest version of Scranton men's basketball will have a slightly different look. Gone is the program's all-time leading scorer, Brendan Boken, who finished his career with 1,911 career points after being named Landmark Conference Player of the Year and a D3hoops.com first-team All-American last season.
"It's the never-ending challenge," Danzig said of replacing Boken. "Every few years we've got to replace really good players. Good recruiting helps with that, and we're really excited about the young kids we've got. And we're really excited about our group of returning players. We have seven returning players – three starters and seven total who played a ton of minutes."
Those seven returnees will give the Royals plenty of experience all over the court, including three returning starters – senior center John Vitkus (Mahopac, N.Y./Mahopac) and junior guards Kevin Doolan (Basking Ridge, N.J./Ridge) and Ethan Danzig (Clarks Green, Pa./Abington Heights).
"It was great with Brendan knowing you're going to go into every game getting 20 points and seven rebounds and three or four assists," Carl Danzig said. "But we had to play that way because we were young. Now we're going to get back to playing the way I like to play, which is more free and loose and ball movement."
Vitkus will anchor the middle after earning Landmark Conference Defensive Player of the Year and second-team accolades last season. He averaged 11.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.6 assists last season. As the lone senior on the squad, Vitkus will also be looked to for leadership this season.
"Obviously John is the leader of the group and I think people are going to be pleased with him and what he brings to the table this year," Danzig said. "He's well-respected by his peers because he comes in and works hard every day. He handles himself well on and off the court. All those factors play into being a good leader. And his teammates voted him a captain, so you already know there's respect there."
Doolan and Ethan Danzig join Vitkus as the team's captains. Doolan finished last season with 11.1 points, 4.4 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game as the starting point guard. Perhaps most importantly, his assist-to-turnover ratio was a sparkling 2.4-to-1.
"Kevin's progression has been tremendous," Danzig said. "He came in as a freshman and had to play, started every game and had the luxury of playing next to two all-conference players (Ross Danzig and Justin Klingman). So the pressure wasn't on him, and then last year more of the focus was on him and he did a good job. You can see now with this being his junior year, he's kind of turned the corner and the game has slowed down and he's seeing things a bit differently. That happens through maturity. So it's exciting to see his progression."
Ethan Danzig returns after averaging 9.8 points per game and leading the team in 3-point percentage at 40.4 percent. His 65 made 3-pointers were the seventh-most in a single season in Royals history, and his career 3-point percentage of 41.8 percent is fifth-best.
"Ethan made a real commitment this summer and got in the weight room and people can see he's gotten stronger," Carl Danzig said. "He worked on putting the ball on the floor because everybody knows he can shoot. And he'll obviously be one of our sharp-shooters."
Juniors Chris McCullough (Greenlawn, N.Y./Harborfields) and Mitch Cross (Marriottsville, Md./Loyola-Blakefield) will also see time in the backcourt this season after providing key contributions last season. They combined to average 6.7 points while shooting 33.3 percent from beyond the arc.
"His speed, his energy, his athleticism, his toughness on the court are a big boost to us," Danzig said of McCullough. "He really worked hard in the offseason to improve his mid-range game and his handle."
Cross averaged double digits in minutes off the bench last year after transferring from West Virginia Wesleyan after two years in which he redshirted in one and was hampered by injury in the other.
"Mitch can obviously shoot the ball for us and is just a quality kid," Danzig said. "He finally got a year under his belt and finally got to play. He hadn't played for two years, so he's finally leveled out."
In the backcourt, juniors Drew Schankweiler (Mechanicsburg, Pa./Mechanicsburg) and Brandon Feinberg (Avon, Conn./Avon/Suffield Academy) join Vitkus to give Scranton three quality big men with experience. Schankweiler averaged 3.7 points and 3.5 rebounds in 12.9 minutes per game last season, while Feinberg saw action in 15 games.
"People are going to be thrilled with Schankweiler and Feinberg," Danzig said. "For Feinberg, you know, the switch has kind of gone on. He's just been doing great things in practice, so we've got three really good big kids.
"Schank's in the gym twice a day, once before practice and then practice," Danzig added. "He's really dedicated to being a contributor. He's kind of a quiet leade ront he team and he's a force. (Brandon) can stretch the floor, he can shoot the 3 and he's got a nice little mid-range game as well as what he can do inside. And he's also a good little passer and playmaker, so that's going to work well with our high-low game."
Sophomores Jack Connelly (Ellington, Conn./Ellington) and Dan Albernas (Syosset, N.Y./Syosset) add depth in the backcourt, with Connelly showing the ability to play on the wing while Albernas can handle the ball and shoot it.
Danzig also welcomes six newcomers this season, including two with familiar last names. Six-foot guard Danny Doolan (Basking Ridge, N.J./Ridge) and 6-foot-7 center Ryan Vitkus (Mahopac, N.Y./Mahopac) join their older brothers on the squad, with Doolan providing the shooting prowess and Vitkus adding another option in the middle.
Six-foot-seven forward Matthew Mancuso (Bridgewater, N.J./Bridgewater-Raritan) and 6-foot-1 guard Kyle DeVerna (Rockville Centre, N.Y./Kellenberg Memorial) should see time at their positions, and Danzig praised 6-foot-4 guard Jack Dreisbach (Allentown, Pa./Parkland) for his ability to do a little bit of everything on the court. Six-foot-five forward Lucas Hackett (Millington, N.J./Watchung Hills) will add depth in the frontcourt, as well.
With just one senior on the active roster, Danzig is happy to have senior P.J. Kelly, a guard on the team over the past three seasons whose career was hampered by injury, on the coaching staff as a student assistant.
"Having P.J. around has helped," Danzig said. "He would be a senior and even though he can't play, his presence has been a big help, especially to the younger kids as a mentor."
The Royals open the season on Friday, Nov. 18, when they host the Hilton Scranton Invitational. Bard faces Penn State-Abington in the opener at 5:30 p.m., followed by the Royals against Sarah Lawrence at 7:30. Saturday's consolation and championship game are scheduled for 2 and 4 p.m.
Danzig put together a challenging non-conference schedule that includes home dates with Cabrini (Nov. 22) and Gettysburg (Jan. 4), road games at Hobart (Nov. 3), Arcadia (Dec. 13) and Neumann (Dec. 30), and games in Puerto Rico against Emory & Henry (Dec. 18) and Montclair State (Dec. 19). And the Royals will again face local rivals King's and Wilkes on Nov. 26 and 27 in the Cross-County Challenge at Wilkes.
"I think it's a good non-conference schedule. We see a lot of different kinds of teams, so I think that will help us get ready for the conference schedule," Danzig said.
The Royals open Landmark Conference play on Saturday, Dec. 3, when they host Juniata at 4 p.m. Following that game, they will not return to conference action until Jan. 7, when they visit Elizabethtown at 4 p.m., tipping off 13 straight conference games to end the regular season.