Over the past four years, Chad Dickman has relished posting the MAC Commonwealth Conference preseason poll somewhere for everyone on his Hood men’s basketball team to see.
In each of those polls, the Blazers had been selected to finish no higher than seventh in the conference, providing them plenty of motivation to prove they were worthy of more respect.
“I’ve always said we play better with a chip on our shoulder — [when we have] a little bulletin board material,” Dickman said Monday as he sat in his office at Hood’s Ronald J. Volpe Athletic Center.
Dickman can’t provide any bulletin board material this season, however, as the Blazers return a host of players from a team that made its first conference tournament appearance in four years, earning them a No. 1 ranking in this year’s preseason poll.
“It’s the first time any team in Hood history — in any sport — has been preseason No. 1 in the MAC,” Dickman said. “So it’s kind of a cool situation from that end of things.”
That being said, the fifth-year Blazers coach hopes his team doesn’t lose some of the edge it displayed as one of the conference’s best teams last season.
“I’ve really stressed this year, one of the biggest things that we have to be cognizant of is complacency — and thinking we’re better than we are or we’ve made it,” Dickman said. “You have to be careful with having the guys thinking, ‘Oh, since we’re No. 1, we don’t have to give 100 percent this day, or we can cut corners because we are one of the better teams.’”
Hood received four first-place votes in the conference’s first poll, with Messiah, Alvernia, Widener, Arcadia and Stevenson each getting one.
Last year, the second-seeded Blazers hosted a MAC tournament semifinal for the first time but fell to third-seeded Widener for the third time in the season.
Hosting the four-team MMI Tip-Off Tournament for the second straight year, Hood begins this season Friday at BB&T Arena with an 8 p.m. game against Southern Virginia.
When the Blazers take the court, they’ll be armed with their top three scorers from last season in Mason Wang (17.9 points per game), Michael Riley (13.0 ppg) and Evan Wang (11.9 ppg). On a team that set a set a single-season school record for 3-pointers, the trio accounted for more than 60 percent of the Blazers’ 272 3s.
Last year, Hood started to fully embrace what has become a team motto under Dickman: Let it fly. The Blazers attempted 151 more 3-pointers (764) than they did the previous season. When the Wang brothers, Riley, Jared Ruiz and Ian Eversull were on the court together, that lineup included no one who finished the season with fewer than 20 3s. For Dickman, having that kind of a lineup will deter opponents from focusing on shutting down any one particular player.
Ruiz and Eversull, Oakdale and Urbana alums, respectively, were the only two seniors the Blazers graduated last spring.
“Our biggest thing is we don’t want to have anyone out there on the court who is not a threat from the perimeter,” said Dickman, who wouldn’t be surprised if Hood attempted more than 800 3s this season. “So … if you’re open, let it fly, whether you’re the center or the point guard.”
For the second straight season, the Blazers will not have a prototypical center manning the middle, with one 6-foot-5 player, 190-pound senior forward Tyler Evans, filling the shoes of another in the 215-pound Eversull.
“He’s kind of in the same situation Ian was last year, where he’s grudgingly accepting the role,” Dickman said of Evans, who made three starts while averaging just over 15 minutes a game. “I always tell the guys, ‘If you know how we play, you should want to play [center] because all it’s going to do is open up easier scoring opportunities on the offensive end because, do you want their 6-5 athletic wing guarding you, or do you want their 6-7 slower post player guarding you?’”
While two of the Blazers’ five freshmen — 6-6 forward Lual Chol and 6-3 forward Ryan Hollwedel — are expected to spell Evans coming off the bench, Hood’s improved defense made up for any size advantage opponents enjoyed by forcing more turnovers. Five different Blazers had 30 or more steals last season. As a result, opponents scored 6.6 fewer points per game than they did the previous year.
Dickman attributes an increased level of comfort with the team’s 2-3 zone defense to the team collecting 59 more steals than it did two years ago. And he expects the Blazers to get more steals off its halfcourt defense this year.
While success on the offensive end usually helps the Blazers increase their defensive intensity, Dickman has seen that intensity drop when Hood goes through bad shooting spells. It happened in an exhibition at George Washington on Saturday as the Blazers trailed by just eight points with 15 minutes remaining but then surrendered 40 points the rest of the way in an 83-55 loss.
“If we get a little flat on offense and start missing some shots, and the other team goes on an 8-0 run, our whole mentality switches for some reason, and there’s been a lot of times where we don’t present the same intensity or fire or focus on defense,” Dickman said. “I tell the guys, ‘Great teams win by 30 when they play really well, and they win by 10 when they have a bad shooting night because their defense isn’t going to let them lose.’ That’s what great teams do.”
After hosting the MMI tournament, the Blazers will travel to face Wilson College on Nov. 13 before hosting the Battle of D.C. & Maryland the following weekend.