Ed Joyner is happy to just think about basketball this season.
That was not the case last year, Joyner's first season as Hampton University's head coach. Senior forward Theo Smalling was shot to death in October, and the team never fully recovered.
"We went through a lot as a team last year, but the good part about it is, that's last year," said Joyner, who spent last season with an interim tag (now gone) hanging over his title. "We're going into the season just worrying about basketball, and basketball only, and we think that we can do some good things."
The Pirates will need consistency from junior guard Darrion Pellum, HU's leading returning scorer who averaged 11.5 points per game while showing flashes of the talent that made him a Virginia Tech signee out of Hampton High. Senior forward Charles Funches, senior guard Brandon Tunnell, junior guard Kwame Morgan and junior center Milade Lola-Charles will also have to step up to offset the loss of leading scorers Vinny Simpson (14.1 points per game) and Michael Freeman (11.6 ppg).
Coach: Ed Joyner (14-18 in one year at Hampton)
Last year: 14-18, 8-8, lost in semifinals of MEAC tournament.
The opener: Nov. 15 at Wake Forest
Five games to watch: Nov. 15 at Wake Forest; Dec. 4 vs. Howard (New York, N.Y.); Jan. 1 vs. Colorado State (San Francisco); Jan. 10 at Morgan State; March 3 at Howard.
What is the team's greatest strength? Bonding through adversity. The Pirates persevered through trying circumstances last season, and though they didn't produce many victories, they grew closer on the court. HU has a quarterfinal Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference victory and experience at every position to build on in a season players hope will just be about hoops.
What's the team's greatest weakness? Leadership. With its top two scorers gone, Hampton will need someone to step up from a list of capable candidates to fill the shoes of Vinny Simpson and Mike Freeman in the scoring column and off the court. Pellum played well in a summer league and says he's ready for that role.
What is the team's conference outlook? Hampton was picked in a preseason poll of league coaches and sports information directors to finish third in the MEAC, behind defending champion Morgan State and South Carolina State. The Pirates will get an immediate conference test on Dec. 4 at Madison Square Garden against a rebuilding Howard team led by former Hampton coach Kevin Nickelberry.
What's the best-case scenario? The Pirates upset Wake Forest in their season-opener in the Dick's NIT Season Tipoff and channel all the emotion of last year into MEAC regular-season and tournament titles and a coach of the year crown for Joyner. Barring that, a solid rebound season, a winning record and momentum going into the conference tournament.
What's more likely to happen? HU's troubled past makes predicting its future a difficult task. In a more settled, less charged environment, Joyner can focus on teaching basketball to players who can concentrate on learning. To focus on hardcourt facts, the Pirates can expect a better season if they improve last year's minus-1.6 rebounding margin.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times