Season opener: vs. Tennessee Temple, 7 p.m. Nov. 14
Sun Belt opener: vs. Louisiana-Monroe, 7 p.m. Dec. 30
2013-14 record: 25-9, 17-1 Sun Belt
Previous game: lost to Clemson 78-66, March 18 in NIT
2013-14 recap: Led by conference player of the year R.J. Hunter, Ryan Harrow, Devonta White and Manny Atkins, the squad had a rough start to the season, with losses to Vanderbilt and Alabama, before breezing through the Sun Belt, losing only at Troy to snap a school-record 14-game winning streak. Seemingly a lock to make it to the NCAA tournament, rebounding, a season-long problem, came to the front in a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the finals of the Sun Belt tournament in New Orleans. The Panthers were outrebounded by 16 and blew an 11-point lead with slightly more than five minutes remaining in regulation.
Reasons for optimism: The team returns its two leading scorers in Hunter and Harrow, starting center Curtis Washington and subs Markus Crider and T.J. Shipes and benefited from the transfer of point Kevin Ware from Louisville. Coach Ron Hunter signed two freshmen, Jordan Session and Jeff Thomas, who should crack a rotation that can go as many as 10 deep. Each starter has at least one backup, so that they don't have to play as much as last season, when four of the five averaged at least 33 minutes per game. Hunter likes the size and toughness of this season's team, which should help clean up last season's rebounding disadvantage of almost five per game. The schedule features road games at Iowa State, at Colorado State, at Old Dominion at Chicago State and at Wisconsin-Green Bay, which should help to prepare the team for the Sun Belt.
Reasons for pessimism: The loss of Atkins, a forward who probably was the team's best all-around threat on offense because he could consistently make the 3-pointer or drive to the basket, can't be replaced. Other than Harrow, it remains to be seen who in the starting lineup will attack the basket with drives to open up lanes for Hunter and others on the outside. As a result, the Panthers shoot too many contested 3-pointers and make it easy on opposing defenses to rebound the misses. On defense, the Panthers can't continue to give up as many offensive rebounds as they did last season. A big part of that will fall to Washington, who has yet to show that he won't disappear for long stretches of games, as he sometimes did last season. If the Panthers can't rebound, and opponents can take care of the ball, the Panthers' defense will be pushed.
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