With only one key returnee from last year's roster, Marshalltown Community College men's basketball coach Brynjar Brynjarrson enters his eighth season as the Tigers' headman with a lot of unknowns.
Though if October's practice slate is any indication, this year's crop of fresh faces is up to the task of carving out its own identity - while quickly adapting to the system Brynjarrson has set in place.
"They have a done a great job of trying to really pin their ears back and learn what we're doing, how we're doing it and how hard we've got to play," said Brynjarrson.
Sophomore guard Matej Delinac is the lone Tiger to see significant minutes back from the 2011-12 campaign, where MCC finished 11-20 with an 0-4 mark in Iowa Community College Athletic Conference Division I play. That record was marred, however, as the Tigers were forced to forfeit seven wins due to an ineligible player on the roster.
Delinac, who averaged 6.5 points last season, is not the only familiar Tiger on the squad though as second-year guard Jerome Gray also returns after seeing limited action a year ago. MCC welcomes back Chris Caird, a member of the 2010-11 team, who signed to play at Santa Clara before blowing out his knee just prior to arriving on campus. Cleared for action a couple weeks ago, Caird, who averaged 12 points per contest for the Tigers, is slowly but surely on the right track.
"(Chris) is making strides getting back in game speed. It might take another four or five weeks, but he will be multi-dimensional. He can play a little point, a little 4 or a little 2," said Brynjarrson.
That versatility is a common theme for the Tigers, who wield multiple members that can play a variety of positions.
"I'm excited to put together a team like that," said Brynjarrson, who expects anywhere from 8 to 11 Tigers to see the court from his resourceful unit.
"That's one thing the guys have done a great job of. They're learning every spot on the floor and not just thinking 'I'm this number.' We prefer to not even go by numbers at this point."
That flexibility and depth will be crucial for a unit lacking the inside presence and size it boasted a year ago. ICCAC Division I first team all-region honoree Marcus Bell, a 6-foot-8 forward who led the league in rebounding (9.9 rpg) and the Tigers in scoring (12.7 ppg), is among the departed.
Bell's work on the boards has been noticeably missed for a squad still seeking to find consistency boxing out.
"Our rebounding has got to get better. We really need to value crashing the glass on the offensive end and not giving up so many on the other end," said Brynjarrson.
MCC must also replace second team guard Rashaad Brown and a trio of honorable mention selections in Nilson Santana, Derrick Stewart and Keith Coleman.
Santana and Coleman fortified the paint with each hauling in 7.1 boards a game, while Stewart was a top 3-point marksman burying 51 triples at a 36 percent clip. Sherman Blanford, who grabbed 6.2 rebounds, completes last year's corps of six Tigers to sign with a Division I - NAIA or NCAA - program.
Though lacking in size, protecting the basket appears to be an early strength of this year's crop, which kicks things off at the Southeastern Classic in Burlington Friday and Saturday.
"Defensively we have a chance to be really good. The guys have won us over with that quite a bit. It's going to give us a chance to get out in transition a lot and I think we're at our best doing that," said Brynjarrson, who has just the floor general in mind for his attack with 5-foot-6 freshman guard Raheim Holloway.
"Raheim has really helped us in the sense of how we want to play aggressive, full court (basketball)," said Brynjarsson.
"He's really coming into his own of being able to run our team and limit turnovers. He knows when to shoot, when not to shoot and when to make the extra pass."
The speedy point man is just one of several newcomers Brynjarrson is excited about.
Troidell Carter, a 6-foot-8 freshman, is expected to man some major minutes at center, while Brynjarrson calls sophomore guard Cameron Robinson "one of the better defenders he's ever coached at MCC."
Jamal Gatali, a 6-foot-7 swingman, is another promising prospect that could become the Tigers' true No. 3 man.
As it's been throughout his tenure, the ICCAC, which welcomes newcomer Northeast Community College from Nebraska, will feature elite competition across the board. Perennial power Indian Hills is No. 5 in the national rankings, while Iowa Western checks in at No. 20.
"(The ICCAC) will be just as good as it has been. There's no dropoffs," said Brynjarrson.
"When you feel like you've restocked you're team, everyone else restocks as well. The league is always going to be good."
While the conference's superior play is a known commodity, it's the gray area of how this year's Tigers will adapt and react that both entices and perplexes their head coach.
"I'm excited for them, because the group of kids that we have is really working hard," said Brynjarrson.
"At the same time, is that going to translate into wins? That's up in the air."
The home opener is 7 p.m. Tuesday against NIACC.