MARSHALL - Working hard, maintaining an unselfish attitude, making each other better and having each other's back. Those have been the virtues of the Southwest Minnesota State men's basketball team for many years, and they've led to plenty of success on the court.
But the concept of a team isn't confined to the time players and coaches spend on the hardwood, which the Mustangs have demonstrated over an emotional offseason while trying to help head coach Brad Bigler and his family cope with the loss of his youngest son, Drake, who died in a car crash caused by a drunk driver in July.
"We just wanted to be there for him, be strong for him because he's going through a rough time," said SMSU junior guard Vinard Birch. "That's the point of a team is that when things go wrong, which they will do sometimes, you just have to be there for one another."
Photo by Matt Dahlseid
Southwest Minnesota State junior guard Vinard Birch, left, dribbles past senior Jordan Miller, center, as Mustangs head coach Brad Bigler looks on during the team’s first official practice of the 2012-13 season Monday at the PE?Gym at SMSU.
Monday, two-and-a-half months after the crash that took his five-month-old son's life and left him with broken ribs, a broken shoulder blade and a collapsed lung, Bigler was back on the court surrounded by his team for the Mustangs' first official practice of the 2012-13 season.
Physically, Bigler said he's not quite 100 percent, but "definitely moving in that direction." With his body on the mend, he's continuing to work on healing the emotional wounds. He hopes that being around his players and turning his focus back to the game he loves will help that process.
"Coming into the school year, obviously my family had a lot of adversity," Bigler said. "The positive note of getting back with the basketball team and getting into a routine was that I thought it would help with the healing process.
"Being around the young guys and seeing their excitement to be around, and just to see how much they cared, it meant a lot to me."
Bigler's players would like to help raise his spirits by putting together a special season, and returning the bulk of a roster that won the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament title for the first time in school history last March, they stand poised to do so.
The Mustangs return their top six scorers and four top rebounders from a 2011-12 season in which they went 19-11 overall, finished tied for second in the NSIC with a 15-7 conference record, and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in the program's history.
"We definitely have a lot of guys who have played together for a couple of years now," said 6-foot-9 junior center Nick Smith, who averaged 12 points and 5.8 rebounds last season. "My recruiting class had nine guys and we're all still pretty much here. We've spent a lot of minutes on the court together, have a lot of chemistry, so we're just looking to keep it going."
The team certainly isn't lacking in talent or experience. Senior guard Jordan Miller earned first team All-NSIC accolades a season ago after averaging a team-high 14.2 points per game and hitting a team-high 58 3-pointers. Smith earned second team All-NSIC honors, Birch was named the NSIC Defensive Player of the Year, and senior forward Lavione West was named MVP of the NSIC Tournament last season.
Guards Matt Zager and Tramel Barnes and forwards William Giddings and Michael Appel also saw plenty of playing time in 2011-12 and return hoping to increase their roles this season. Sophomore guard Shaun Condon and freshman center David Condon, who both redshirted last year, will vie for minutes, as well as senior guard Jordan Buddenhagen, who sat out last season.
As always, the Mustangs' focus is on being an elite defensive team within the conference. SMSU led the NSIC in steals per game (7.50) last season and the players would like to replicate that this year.
"We press to try to wear teams down, make them take quick shots so we can get going up and down the court. That's the way we like to play," Miller said. "This fall we worked on a lot of defensive stuff. We still have to be better in the half-court situations."
With nine days until SMSU's first exhibition game against Waldorf (Iowa) on Oct. 24, Bigler said some of the things he'll try to accomplish with his team during practices are to have his players get back to the fundamentals of the game after picking up some bad habits over the summer, and also to have them develop a high level of communication on the court.
Bigler and his players recognize that the foundation to create a another special season is in place with the talent they have on the roster, but the head coach wants to make sure the Mustangs know they can't stray from their team-first approach.
"It's nice to be recognized, but at the same time, we have to understand that there are a lot of good teams in the NSIC this year, a lot of teams that have reloaded," he said, "and just because we had success last year, there's no guarantee it will happen again.
"Really, at the end of the day, we just want to put a great product on the floor, something that Mustang fans can be proud of in regards to working as hard as we can and having that attitude of unselfishness, trying to make each other better, having each other's back. I think that if we can put a product out like that and are able to stay healthy throughout the year, I think it'll be a fun year."