There is no doubt that the Marshalltown Community College men's basketball team has plenty of talent returning from last year's 21-9-1 squad.
But Tiger coach Brynjar Brynjarsson also knows that the schedule laid in front of his program will be as tough as they come in 2013-14.
"We have the chance to be pretty good this year, but right now it is about getting better every day and hopefully we are playing our best ball in January and February," Brynjarsson said. "But our schedule won't be easy. There are a lot of tough games ahead of us and the margin for error this year will be small."
Gone from the Tigers squad last year are the top two leading scorers in Chris Caird and Matej Delinac, but back are returning starters Raheim Holloway, Troidell Carter and Jamal Gatali.
Carter, a 6-foot-9 center, was the team's third-leading scorer last year at 11 points and trailed only Caird, who is currently playing at Drake University, in rebounds at nearly six per tilt. Gatali, who stands 6-foot-7, led the team with 22 blocks and averaged 8.3 points and 5.3 boards per contest. The 5-foot-7 Holloway led the team with 94 assists and 59 steals while also averaging 6.2 points per contest.
"Life has certainly been a little easier because we have so many returners," Brynjarsson said. "Most of the guys on the team know what to expect from the coaches. The biggest thing we are working on right now is replacing the leadership qualities that Chris and Matej possessed."
The Tigers will lean on Holloway, Carter and Gatali to fill the production left by Caird and Delinac, but Brynjarsson feels good about 12-13 guys on his roster this year.
Other sophomores back - and who are looking to take on bigger roles this year - include Marlon Williams, Terrell Clyburn and Kenny Strong.
"We are still trying to find an identity and identify roles on this year's squad," Brynjarsson said. "The sophomores are working hard and stepping up their roles from last year. We hope to see an increase from their freshmen years to their sophomore years though."
Adding to the depth of the roster will be several talented freshmen and a few sophomores who transferred in from other institutions.
New York native Giovanni Ellis joins the squad after averaging eight points and five boards in his one year at Lake Land College. He scored six points and grabbed five rebounds against MCC last year, a game that resulted in a 66-51 win for the Tigers.
The leaders in the freshmen class include Tyrese Hoxter, Mike Rodriguez and Brazilian Guilherme Verardo.
Hoxter, a 6-foot-4 guard, averaged 19 points and eight boards for his high school team in Boston, Mass., that won a state championship his senior year. Rodriguez also played in Boston and scored more than 1,000 points in his prep career.
As good as those offensive numbers look on paper, Brynjarsson also expects all of his players to play at both ends.
"We didn't recruit guys to develop their offensive game," Brynjarsson said. "It's a different level than some of these guys are used to. My expectation is play hard on every possession. If you don't play both ends, it'll be hard for you to find minutes. There is no question about that."
The Tigers kick off the season against Quakerdale Prep Academy at 7 p.m. tonight. But that is not the only talented program MCC will play this season.
Four teams in the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference are preseason ranked.
Perennial power Indian Hills will begin the season No. 2 in NJCAA Division I, while Iowa Western starts at No. 8. The NJCAA Division II rankings will include Iowa Lakes at No. 6 and Kirkwood at No. 16.
"The rankings to me are not too accurate because it is done by guys who haven't even seen a team play," Brynjarsson said. "I think Southeastern and Northeast could be good enough to be ranked, too."
College of Southern Idaho also is ranked and on the schedule for early November. CSI, which went 20-12 last year, begins the year at No. 13 of the Division I rankings. The Tigers also will play West Plains, Mid Michigan Community College and Barton Community College in November prior to the conference slate.
"The schedule is tough, and I hope our guys are ready for it," Brynjarsson said. "We're realistic. We like our guys but the slate is not easy. There are no JV games on there."
The Tigers won 13 of their first 14 games last year and not many "experts" were talking about them before the season started.
Brynjarsson hopes to use that momentum and a solid winning season to build from this year.
"We want to compete for a conference and regional championship," Brynjarsson said. "We also realize that has never happened here before. But that's the goal.
"We expect to go out and play to our ability. Injuries could come into play but we have the chance to be a pretty good team."