By Matt Green
SAINT LEO, Fla. – What welcoming gift greets Chad Warner and his Shorter University men's basketball team as it enters its inaugural season at the NCAA Division II level?
How about a date with one of the best that Division II has to offer.
Shorter's Basketball Hawks will take to the floor for the first time in 2012-13 tomorrow night as they square off with No. 14-ranked Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Fla. Tip off is set for 7:30 pm.
Shorter, coming off its most successful season in program history, makes it NCAA debut against one of Division II's best in the Lions, who are the preseason pick to win the Sunshine State Conference after winning a school record 18 games and earning their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid in 2011-12.
Warner has made sure that his team does not rest on its impressive laurels from a season ago, accomplishments that pushed the Hawks into uncharted territory in their final season in the NAIA.
Shorter won its first 22 games en route to a 34-3 overall record and the nation's No. 1 ranking for five out of 12 weeks. The Hawks won their first conference regular season and tournament titles since 1977 and made their first-ever trip to the NAIA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship, as the tournament's top seed no less.
Shorter advanced to the Fab Four of the national tourney and saw Warner named the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) NAIA National Coach of the Year.
But that is ancient history as far as Warner is concerned, as a set of ripe challenges await the Hawks this season.
Along with fellow former NAIA institution Union University, Shorter is the newest member of the Gulf South Conference and will take to the hardwood against such regional and league powers as Alabama-Huntsville (No. 3 NABC/Division II Poll/No. 6 Division II Bulletin Preseason Top 25) and Christian Brothers (No. 16 NABC/Division II Preseason Poll; No. 13 Division II Bulletin Preseason Top 25). A much-improved West Georgia squad also looms on the schedule.
First thing is first for the Hawks, however, who are going to also need to navigate a difficult non-conference slate beginning with Saint Leo team that returns all five starters and nine of its top 10 scorers from last year's record setting squad.
6-4 senior guard Trent Thomas returns to the Lions' lineup after leading Saint Leo in scoring (15.4 ppg) and 3-point field goal percentage (.411) on his way to first team All-SSC honors. Fellow SSC first teamer, 6-4 senior Marcus Ruh, poured in 13.2 points a game in 2011-12 and 6-6 senior forward Shaun Adams provided the muscle after averaging 9.2 points and a team-high 5.3 rebounds.
Defensively, Saint Leo ranked as one of the best in the nation last season, topping the Sunshine State Conference in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense, 3-point field goal percentage defense and defensive rebounding.
The Lions allowed just 58.7 points a game – good enough for fourth in NCAA Division II – and held opponents to 39 percent shooting.
Saint Leo has already shown that it has the athletes and scheme to compete at the highest level.
The Lions took on a pair of Atlantic Coast Conference members in two exhibition games last week, beating Miami on the road, 69-67, before falling to Florida State in Tallahassee, 65-56. In each of those games, Saint Leo held the Hurricanes and Seminoles to little better than 40 percent shooting.
Shorter, which returns a number of key players from last year's squad, will counter with what could be one of the most prolific offenses in the program's history.
Back to anchor the Hawks' lineup are 2011-12 NAIA All-America forward Anthony Banks and All-Conference shooting guard C.J. Davis.
Banks, who came to Shorter after earning second team All-Atlantic Sun honors at NCAA Division I Florida Gulf Coast, ranked second on the team in scoring last season on his way to national accolades. The 6-7 senior averaged 16.3 points and 8.6 rebounds a game while shooting 60 percent from the field and 72 percent from the foul line.
Davis, an NAIA All-America selection at Union before coming to Shorter last season as a junior, came off the bench to average 13.6 points a game while shooting 37 percent from 3. He moves into the starting lineup this season and will be counted on as a primary contributor.
Another key returner is senior guard Kenny Leverette, who established himself as one of the NAIA's best perimeter defenders last season. Leverette also showed that he could produce offensively – he dropped in a career-high 25 points in Shorter's first round national tournament win over Life – and put up 7.7 points a game for a team that averaged over 80 each time out.
Newcomers Dedric Ware (6-0, 175), a sophomore transfer point guard from Truett-McConnell, and Brandon Pullman (6-6, 215), a JUCO third team All-America at forward last season for Lincoln College, add extra offensive punch for Warner's bunch. 3-point specialist Brandon Wright (6-4, 190), a transfer from USC-Sumter, is also slated to play plenty of minutes.