Replacing three all-conference players is never easy. Doing so while also adjusting to the demands of a new head coach is a whole other obstacle, but it's one that stands in between the Marshall Tigers boys' basketball team and the tip off of its 2012-2013 season.
With All-Southwest Conference selections Lee Christianson and Mason Schnaible lost to graduation the Tigers will be forced to replace their top two scorers from a year ago, while the graduation of all-conference honorable mention Shawn Tykwinski leaves a void from 3-point range to be filled as well.
The returning Tigers saw eight-year head coach Tom Critchley depart after posting a 151-71 overall record, and will now respond to the whistles of Travis Carroll.
Carroll, who is making his head coaching debut with the Marshall program, has been thankful that not all the faces his players see at practice are new. Two longtime assistants in the Tiger program, Ben Haugen and Mike Christianson, chose to remain on the bench and aid Carroll in his first tour with the Tigers.
"It's good to have coach Haugen and coach Christianson back from last year so the kids see those familiar faces here at the gym," Carroll said. "The kids have worked really hard the first few weeks and I think we're just excited to play a game. It's been two-and-a-half weeks now, so they're excited to play against someone else."
While other area teams jumped at the earliest possible competition date to begin their seasons, the Tigers have taken a more restrained approached. With a new head coach at the helm, the Tigers have used the extra nine days of practice to become more familiar with Carroll's offensive and defensive schemes. Carroll wasn't ready to compare differences between his gameplan and the one that Marshall basketball players and fans had come to know, but he did say that he expects his team to play full speed for the full game.
"I can't really compare one system to another, but I can say that our kids are going to work really hard on both ends of the floor and hopefully there's a lot of energy on our bench along with our players on the floor," Carroll said. "I think if you can start with those type of things, it can lead to some big things happening and just bringing the team close together throughout the game and throughout the season."
The Tigers will get their first opportunity to grow together when they host the Fairmont Cardinals at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday. Fairmont should provide a tough test right out of the gate, as the Cardinals are currently ranked No. 5 in Class AA.
"They were preseason ranked No. 4 in Class AA. They bring a lot of guys back from last year, so they have a lot of experience," Carroll said. "It's actually a team that we played last year and lost to early in the year, so it's definitely a team that our guys recognize as a difficult opponent."
It doesn't get much easier for Marshall after that. Immediately looming is defending Southwest Conference champion Redwood Valley and 2011-2012 Class AA state tournament qualifier Worthington. Also lurking down the road are games against opponents from arguably Class AAA's toughest section, Marshall's own section, 2AAA.
Both Waconia (No. 5) and Willmar (No. 7) are among the top 10 in the Class AAA rankings, while the Tigers likely have at least two games against defending section champion Mankato East.
"The section's very tough," Carroll said. "Waconia is getting a lot of preseason recognition and they started the year off by beating two AAAA schools, so they're going to be very tough. Willmar is also bringing a good team back.
"You can't forget Mankato. Mankato East is the defending section champion and year in, year out they'll be a very good team; and Mankato West is also going to be tough in our section, too. Top to bottom, I think it's going to be a good section this year."
Despite the behind-the-scenes changes, the Tigers will return a number of players that logged quality time at the varsity level in 2011-12, including six seniors. Marshall returns its rebound leader in Aaron Mathiowetz, assist leader in Austin Saugstad, as well as Tanner Bukowski and Hunter Peterson, who each scored over 200 points last season. Senior forward Derek Buysse and junior guard Riley Sharbono also figure to feature prominently for the Tigers this year.
"I think coming into this situation, you couldn't ask for a better group of seniors to work with," Carroll said. "A lot of these kids have experience, they're tremendous leaders, and they're looking forward to their senior year. I'm very fortunate to have the experience that we have on this team."
While the Tigers are long on experience, boasting seven juniors to add to their half-dozen seniors, they are short on height. Marshall's tallest player measures 6-foot-3.
In order to neutralize their height disadvantage, the Tigers will need to combine athleticism with fundamentally sound basketball if they want to return to the state tournament after missing out last season.
"We've had a few scrimmages, and one of the things I think as a team as a whole that we're pretty focused on is rebounding and taking care of the ball at the beginning of the year, because if we do well in those areas, I think some good things will happen," Carroll said. "Offensively, in our couple of scrimmages our guys have done a good job of getting to the basket and creating scoring opportunities.
"I think sharing the basketball is going to be pretty big for our guys. When our guys share the basketball they perform pretty well, so it's just a matter of continuing to build on that."
But for all their practice and all their experience, the Tigers will not know what growing pains (if any) are to be experienced until tip-off Saturday.
"It's early in the season and we're going to make some mistakes, but we just have to learn from those mistakes and adjust going forward," Carroll said.