There is a special kind of excitement hovering around the Shippensburg University men’s basketball team entering the 2017-18 season.
With four of its five starters from last season returning, including All-American Dustin Sleva, and the team boasting a preseason ranking of No. 8 in the nation after a 27-4 season that ended in the Atlantic Region Semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, what is there to not be excited about?
“Last year was one for the record books,” Fite said. “To have a lot of pieces returning from that team is really exciting. But I say this at the beginning of every season — this year’s team hasn’t done anything yet.”
For the Raiders, this season is all about defending its conference title, while trying to take the program to the next step.
“Every year that we’ve been here it’s been about taking it a step further,” Fite said. “As far as this year, hopefully having had the success in the PSAC and picking up an NCAA Tournament win and advancing there, the goal is to get back to the tournament and hopefully go a step or two, or three, further."
The Raiders entered 2017 on fire, winning a school-record 18 consecutive games before carrying that success over into a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Tournament run. SU won the 2017 conference championship over a powerhouse Kutztown team.
The team will be counting on the 6 foot, 8 inch Sleva once again, who garnered national attention last season after averaging 21.7 points and 11 rebounds per game. He was the only player in the PSAC to average a double-double.
“He’s been a huge part of helping transform this program and he helped put Shippensburg basketball on the map,” Fite said. “It’s going to be a challenge this year, because he is going to attract a lot of attention. It’s going to provide some opportunities for the other guys and we will need them to step up and make team’s pay for trying to take him away.”
In preparation for the season, Sleva talked about the benefits of playing in Spain, as well as different elements of his game he tried to work on over the offseason. Sleva was noticeably bigger, putting on 10 pounds of muscle over the summer.
“I try to approach each year with a different move, so I’ve been working on some driving and kicking, as well as the jump hook and 3-pointers,” Sleva said. “I’ve tried to work on my passing and my defense especially. I put a lot of work in this summer and we will see what the results are.”
The Raiders return key players in 3-point sharpshooter Justin McCarthur, a great combo-guard in Antonio Kellem as well as sophomore forward John Castello, who burst onto the scene as a freshman last season.
McCarthur will be counted on a lot, after averaging 15.9 points and more than three 3-pointers per game.
“I think the experience of last year was good for us,” McCarthur said. “I think that experience will really help prepare us for this season.”
This season, senior Clay Conner will be counted on to step into the void left by point guard Abe Massaley who graduated, and Conner looks the part, after serving as a valuable guard off the bench and continuing to impress during the team’s trip to Spain.
Conner expressed his excitement for the season.
“It’s been a long offseason,” Conner said. “A lot of running, a lot of lifting. We’ve been practicing against ourselves for a while now so we can’t wait to get things started with the tipoff tournament Nov. 10.”
One of the biggest challenges for the Raiders will be trying to not look ahead to what the end of the season may bring, and just playing each game to accomplish the end goal.
“I think that can be one of the pitfalls this year,” Fite said. “The challenge right now is not to even think about that. We can’t look too far down the road and we just need to take it one game at a time and get better as the season goes on.”
The Raiders will open the 2017 season with the Wolf’s Bus Line Classic. SU will host two quality opponents in Shaw University and Virginia Union University — the Raiders’ Saturday matchup with Virginia Union is a rematch of the NCAA Tournament matchup between the two teams.
“We thought this year was a good year to load up our schedule and see how we measure up,” Fite said. “We have two high level teams coming in for that tip-off tournament and we’re going to be challenged right off the bat.”
The Raiders’ game on Saturday, will be a rematch with the Panthers, who SU defeated 79-59 on March 11, behind a school-record 18 3-pointers. Fite joked about the toughness of the team’s opening opponents.
“There have been some times when I’ve questioned why I made that decision,” Fite joked. “But I think it will be great for us to get out there and compete.”
SU will host Shaw University on Friday at 8 p.m. at Heiges Field House. The Raiders will host Virginia Union on Saturday at 8 p.m.