The start of a season is like Christmas Day to the fans of a certain team.
All around, fans are treated to shiny, new presents. New players, new expectations and a brand new season of games to root that team on await the fans at the start of the year.
For fans of the Indian Hills basketball team, a few more new presents are awaiting them and the team they pull for this season. Even before the first game tips off, this season is sure to be unlike any other of Warrior hoops.
For the first time ever, IHCC will have to battle through a five-team Region XI with the addition of longtime Warrior opponent Northeast Nebraska. Should Indian Hills navigate its way back to the NJCAA Division I National Tournament for a second-straight year, there will be more new obstacles awaiting them in the first-ever 24-team single-elimination field that will battle in March to decide a national champ.
To say the least, the fifth-ranked Warriors are about to tip off a brand new season on Friday.
“There’s definitely a couple of different wrinkles to our season this year,” IHCC head coach Barret Peery said.
The wrinkle that will be felt throughout the nation is the change in the national tournament format, which had been a 16-team tournament that allowed teams to lose a game and still be able to play as many as four games throughout the week. IHCC benefited from that format last year after being knocked off by third-ranked Monroe College in the Warriors opening game and second overall game of the national tournament.
“Coming in and going to Hutch last year, I really didn’t know what to expect,” sophomore Jameel McKay said of his first national tournament experience last year. “That inexperience definitely caught us in that first game”.
While their national title hopes were dashed with that first loss, the Warriors were able to hang around and won their final three games at Hutchinson to finish seventh in the nation. Under this year’s 24-team single-elimination format, a first-game loss would send IHCC home for the season.
McKay, however, doesn’t see the Warriors being caught off guard again should IHCC make it back to the national tournament.
“That experience is going to help me impart that knowledge to the new players on this year’s team,” McKay said. “It’s easier (for a player) to believe it when it’s coming from another player.”
The expansion of the tournament will send the regular 16 qualifiers from the previous years that win their way in through postseason district titles. Eight new qualifiers will come from the four new zones that, once every four years, will be allowed to send a second team from each of the four districts within the zones.
The four other teams will be selected as “at-large” qualifiers, which will go to the four highest-rated teams yet to qualify for the tournament. With both the final four national tourney berths and overall tournament seeding being based on criteria that includes strength of schedule, overall win-loss record and national ranking, the entire regular season will play a role in helping determine the Warriors road to their fourth national title.
Of course, that leads to another wrinkle for the Warriors as Peery will take his current team to territory that he is very familiar with. IHCC will head to Salt Lake, Utah and Southern Idaho for three games during the week of Thanksgiving and will play three games in Arizona at the start of January.
“It’s a tough schedule, as tough as any schedule you’ll find throughout the country.”
IHCC also gets familiar tough opponents back on the schedule, including home-and-homes with fellow 2012 national tournament qualifier Three Rivers and Division II national power Kirkwood. All the non-regional tests will also get the Warriors prepared for a Region XI slate that not only features a new opponent in Northeast Nebraska, but the return of IHCC’s “War on 34” rival Southeastern after the Blackhawks canceled the second half of their season last year.
While there are several new challenges that await the Warriors in 2012-13, the ultimate goal of the team remains the same.
“We try to practice every day like we’re national champions,” McKay said. “Every after huddle, we yell out “national champs” as a team. That’s something that’s a goal for this entire team.”
“It’s national championship or bust for us this year.”