What a difference a year makes for the Helias Crusaders.
As the Crusaders prepare for today's opening-round game in the Joe Machens Great 8 Classic, they'll be in the midst of a complete reversal from last season.
After their most recent game, a 67-56 win against Branson on Dec. 20, the Crusaders' record stands at 4-1. That's extremely pleasing to head coach Josh Buffington.
"I know at this point last year we were 1-4," Buffington said. "We told our guys before that game we wanted to flip the script, and we did that.
"We're off to a very solid start."
That solid start began to hit high gear not long after the preseason Jamboree the Crusaders hosted Nov. 22.
"You try not ot look at your record when you're evaluating where you are after five games, but the one thing I can say about this team is from Game 1 in the Rackers Fieldhouse (the Jamboree) to Game 5 in the Rackers Fieldouse (the Branson game), I think we're a different team already."
But the coach has been quick to remind his players they're still a long way from what they can be.
"The challenge with this group is going to be how can we keep them away from complacency within the season," Buffington said. "It's a grind of a season. Our guys need to focus on staying focused every day in practice."
It shouldn't be a problem getting focused for today's opponent. The record of Louisville (Ky.) Western may not be that impressive at 4-3, but the Warriors' personnel sure is.
"They're salty," Buffington said. "They are defintely the most athletic team we'll have seen this year and probably more athletic than anybody we saw last year.
"They're quick to the ball, they defend well and they want to score quick. They want to dictate the pace with ball pressure out in the passing lanes, and they're not afraid to gamble, because they want to go get a quick bucket. They're a very explosive team - we're going to have to play a smart game in order to win."
The Crusaders got some good preparation for the game thanks to Branson, which had some strong, quick guards of its own.
"It's hard to beat a team when they have two really good guards, and Branson did," Buffington said. "... They had good interior passing from guards to bigs, and then their bigs would finish well. It was a great measuring stick for us."
Helias will have to prepare for a balanced scoring attack from Western. The Warriors have had a different leading scorer in each of the past five games, and four of the five times that player went for 20 points or more. Kittrell Withers has been the most consistent scorer for the Warriors, as he's put up 21 points in three of the seven games and added a 20-point effort in another.
Isiah Sykes leads Helias with a whopping 25.4 points per game. Hale Hentges is the only other Crusader in double digits, dropping in 10.8 points per contest. Collin Caywood is close behind at 9.5 ppg.
Adam Bax leads the Crusaders in rebouding with 4.6 per game, while Alex Barton's totals of 4.2 assists and 2.0 steals per game lead the squad.