HELENA — As if the Carroll College Saints needed any extra motivation.
Entering the season after a run to the quarterfinals of the NAIA National Tournament and a 29-6 record in 2016-17, all while graduating a single senior, one might think the Saints men's basketball team would be the league favorite in the preseason coaches poll.
One would be wrong.
Montana Western, also a national tournament qualifier a season ago, edged the Saints as the favorite in the coaches poll to win the Frontier Conference. Carroll lost its top player from last year, All-American Zach Taylor, but essentially returns all of its other critical components.
Coaches gave the edge to Western.
“Our players are super-competitive and motivated no matter what,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “When our seniors were freshman, they were picked last. They finished in the upper-half. When they were sophomores, they were picked in the bottom half. They finished second. Now, after winning the Frontier last year, they are not picked to win it. That'll add a little fuel. But, really, all our guys are simply just motivated to build the best team together that they can. Rather than overly worrying about where we finish, grappling and battling to be our best is the goal.”
Similarly, senior Ryan Imhoff, who contributed in so many ways for the Saints in ultra-efficient fashion, was not viewed as the league’s preseason favorite for player of the year after an All-American performance a season ago. That honor went to the also ultra-talented Dom Robinson of UM Western.
“Dom Robinson is a really good player,” Cunningham said. “Ryan is too. The level of efficiency that Ryan played at last year -- when you factor in points, rebounds, steals, blocks, and assists, as well as his defensive presence, was startling -- I'd venture to say, top five nationally. He wants to improve on that. If he does so, it's going to help us become the best team we can be -- and that's the goal.”
If the tax imposed on Carroll was for the loss of Taylor, the Saints have plans on how to replace a part of Taylor’s production, namely through guards Lorel Johnson, Matt Wyman and Alejandro Santos Piqueras. Taylor’s unflappable nature and playmaking – and his 2,000 career points – won’t be easy to replace, but the Saints feel other plays will step up.
“We have three players -- Johnson, Wyman, and Santos -- who are all experienced and can play the point,” Cunningham said. “They had a great opportunity to play with Zach and learn from him. Zach's imprint is still with us. Our point guards now get to continue to develop and build on previous years. They work hard. They're ready. And we have a freshman point guard in Emilio Mancol who has a dynamic game, too.”
The Saints begin their season with exhibition play this weekend, hosting Yellowstone Christian of Billings on Saturday in the PE Center before traveling to Salish Kootenai on Sunday, supposedly as the first Frontier team to play at Salish Kootenai.
“We hope fans come out to cheer us on,” Cunningham said. “These guys have shown a captivating competitive spirit over the years. I think that'll continue -- it's fun to be a part of. It's contagious. I hope the fans continue to dig it. They've been great supporters of us, and we're grateful for it.”
Here’s a look at the Saints 2017-18 roster.
Lorel Johnson: senior guard, 6-foot-1, 165 lbs
2016-17 stats: 31 gp (10 starts), 4.4 ppg, 43% FG, 26% 3-pt, 84% FT, 1.3 rpg, 1.7 apg
Overview: Johnson is entering a senior season that figures to see his 19.1 minutes per game raise with the departure of Taylor. Johnson proved to be a pesky defender and streaky shooter last season. He wasn’t called to run the point often in 2016-17, but he figures to have the ball in his hands a little more this season. Johnson emerged from the offseason with more muscle on his frame, which figures to help as his workload increases.
Ife Kalejaiye: junior guard, 6-foot-2, 168 lbs
2016-17 stats: 33 gp (30 starts), 5.6 ppg, 47% FG, 42% 3-pt, 89% FT, 2.7 rpg, 1.8 apg
Overview: Kalejaiye was without a doubt the Saints’ top defender last season, and arguably the best perimeter defender in the conference. Kalejaiye prides himself on his defense, and most nights he’ll be checking the other team’s top guard or forward. Kalejaiye is an ultra-efficient player on the offensive end, making the most of his limited opportunities from a season ago. He slashes to the basket and knocks down 3-pointers, giving defenses few outs when they defending him.
Kyle Nickol: junior guard, 6-foot, 165 lbs
2016-17 stats: 24 gp (3 starts), 1.5 ppg, 32% FG, 34% 3-pt, 100% FT (2-2), 0.8 rpg, 0.7 apg
Overview: The Capital High product saw limited action off the bench for Carroll last season. The All-American sprinter in track and field gives the Saints speed on the court when he does play. Nickol can contribute in multiple ways, but showed mostly spot-up shooting abilities. He could figure to be a larger contributor this season.
Emilio Mancol: freshman point guard, 5-foot-9, 160 lbs
2016-17 stats: N/A
Overview: Mancol comes to the Saints after finishing a decorated high school career at Seattle’s Kennedy Catholic. There, Mancol averaged 19 points per game and helped his team to three consecutive trips to the state tournament in the Tacoma Dome. He was a first-team all-league guard during his final two years. While the Saints haven’t decided on redshirts yet, Mancol is unavailable until November until he is fully healed from a meniscus procedure during the summer. If Mancol suits up this season, he gives the Saints a projected craft point guard.
Chase Burnham: freshman guard, 6-foot-3, 200 lbs
2016-17 stats: N/A
Match’s not-so-little brother Chase has enough size and ability that he could forego a redshirt season. Burnham comes to the Saints after a strong high school career at Liberty High School in Spangle, Washington. He averaged 17.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while shooting 34 percent from 3-point range and 45 percent from the field. If Burnham reunites on the court with his older brother, Saints’ fans should expect the duo to continue the success they had in high school.
Dane Warp: sophomore guard, 6-foot-4, 190 lbs
2016-17 stats: 28 games, 5.3 ppg, 57% FG, 47% 3-pt, 91% FT, 1.8 rpg, 0.4 apg
Overview: Warp can light it up. The Havre native can score in a variety of ways, but didn’t get to show it much last season as he worked to improve his defense. Warp possesses an offensive package that makes him nearly unguardable at times. With some more scoring needed this season, Saints fans should expect to see Warp on the court and producing.
Matt Wyman: junior guard/forward 6-foot-7, 180 lbs
2016-17 stats: 35 games (30 starts), 8.7 ppg, 64% FG, 30% 3-pt, 80% FT, 4.7 rpg, 1.6 apg
Overview: Wyman was one of the most efficient players in the nation a season ago. He found lanes to the hoop for backdoor looks often and demonstrated the ability to post when the Saints need it. When defenders began to sag off Wyman later in conference play, he found other ways to be effective. His high-flying dunks electrified the PE Center in what felt like most home games. Expect Wyman to be on the court as much or more than he was a season ago (27 minutes per game in 2015-16).
Ryan Imhoff: senior guard/forward, 6-foot-6, 220 lbs
2016-17 stats: 33 games (33 starts), 17.4 ppg, 55% FG, 34% 3-pt, 80% FT, 6.2 rpb, 3 apg
Overview: Imhoff, the multifaceted All-American from a season ago, figures to be the Saints' most important player. A year ago, Imhoff and Taylor complemented each other and shouldered a large part of the Saints’ offensive load. Imhoff did so in the post, high post and on the perimeter. He played a physical brand of basketball and didn’t sacrifice any efficiency. Imhoff commands a double team when he gets the ball, and his ability to pass in crowds makes the Saints difficult to defend. The bruiser will be called on a lot this season.
Match Burnham: junior guard/forward, 6-foot-8, 210 lbs
2016-17 stats: 23 g (9 starts), 11.4 ppg, 48% FG, 51% 3-pt, 68% FT, 3.1 rpg, 0.7 apg
Overview: Burnham is the Saints’ best 3-point shooter entering the season. He hit 41 3-pointers a season ago and led the Saints in 3-point shooting percentage as well as ranking high nationally. The 6-foot-8 guard also isn’t afraid to drive or post up and get physical. Burnham recovered from a wrist injury a season ago and returned to help the Saints in the NAIA national tournament. Fully healthy now, Burnham will once again be a match-up problem for the opponents. Burnham earned honorable mention All-American honors as a freshman.
Oliver Carr: senior forward, 6-foot-6, 205 lbs
2016-17 stats: 24 g (16 starts), 9.5 ppg, 64% FG, 85% FT, 2.8 rpg, 1.5 apg
Overview: Carr’s junior season was cut short after an ACL tear. He has fully recovered ahead of schedule and figures to once again be one of the Saints’ top post presences. Carr brings a physical and crafty style of play to the post, all while finishing his chances at a high clip. Carr often beats single coverage and is deft enough to beat teams with the pass when he does get doubled. Early on in practices and scrimmages this season, Carr has shown his physical, no-nonsense approach to the game is unchanged. Whatever role the Saints put Carr in, the senior will have success.
Alejandro Santos Piqueras: redshirt junior forward, 6-foot-8, 195 lbs
2016-17 stats: 27 g (4 starts), 3.9 ppg, 52% FG, 31% 3-pt, 69% FT, 3 rpg, 1.7 apg
Overview: Santos will give the Saints a little Magic Johnson flavor as an oversized point guard who dazzles with his passing ability. Santos court vision and awareness is unique among the Saints, and with a void to fill at point guard, the 6-foot-8 Spaniard should get opportunities. His creative passing is complemented by a unique scoring ability.
Patrick Colberg: senior forward, 6-foot-8, 215 lbs
2016-17 stats: 18 g (one start), 2 ppg, 50% FG, 35% 3-pt, 1 rpg
Overview: Colberg spelled forwards a season ago, playing defense on other teams’ centers and interior playersl while pulling those defenders out to the 3-point line on the other end. Colberg possesses legit shooting range and can make opponents pay if they don’t get out on the big man.
Brad King: freshman forward, 6-foot-8, 210 lbs
2016-17 stats: N/A
Overview: The Australian freshman gives the Saints a strong forward who can somewhat extend his range. It remains to be seen if King will redshirt, but his packaging of size and skill looks to fit nicely with the Saints’ reputation of creating match-up problems.