As if returning four starters wasn’t encouraging enough, the Franklin College men’s basketball team has another reason for optimism heading into tonight’s season-opener.
Eight freshmen, several of whom are expected to make immediate contributions, complement a veteran team that expects to contend for the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship.
Franklin finished 14-12 last season and is looking for its first HCAC title since 2009. The Grizzlies open the season tonight at Wabash.
“I think there are several of those kids who are ready to play,” 29th-year coach Kerry Prather said of freshman class. “They’re still kind of acclimating to the system, but they’ve done a really good job. The older guys have done a really good job of leading, and the younger kids have done a really good job of following and listening.
“It’s a really good mix.”
Highlighting the mix are senior guards Bailey Howard, Terry Sargent and J.T. Barton, and senior forward Troy Porter. All, at one time or another, had starting roles last season.
Sophomore guard Trae Washington and sophomore forward Dion Smith also have starting experience and are expected to have enhanced presences this season.
The mix of experience and youth adds up to quality depth the team has lacked recently.
“It’s really a good combination from a talent standpoint and chemistry standpoint,” Prather said. “I can’t tell how long it’s going to take, but I think we’re going to get back to some of the depth that we’ve had in our really good teams, and that just makes all the difference in the world.
“It’s going to be a work in progress, but I thinks it’s going to be a really exciting work in progress.”
Of the returners, Howard was the most accomplished last season. One of the league’s top players, he was the HCAC’s third-leading scorer last season (18 per game) and will likely again be the focal point of the Grizzlies’ offense.
“Part of the calculus every year is, do you have one or two guys who at their position are better than most of the guys at the same position on the teams you’re going to compete with, and Bailey’s just better than most guys,” Prather said. “He attracts enough attention defensively that helps us in some other areas, and I think what we’ve got to do is be smart how we use him and kind of play off him, because he’s really versatile.
“He can drive it, he can shoot it, he’s strong enough to post up, and he rebounds really well for us.”
Although Franklin was selected to finish sixth in the 10-team HCAC in a preseason vote of conference coaches, Prather is confident the Grizzlies can — and will — be in the championship hunt.
“I think we’ll shoot it better,” said Prather, who has guided the Grizzlies to five NCAA Division III Tournament appearances. “We haven’t been a good shooting team in the last couple of years.
“At the end of the day, shooting is what makes the world go around.”