LEBANON — McKendree University men's basketball coach Harry Statham is blunt in assessing the Bearcats' prospects in their first season in the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference.
"All I can tell you is the (East Division) teams picked us eighth out of eight. That's probably accurate," said Statham, in his 47th season. "We've never played anybody in the league. We're a little undermanned going into this thing. Every game is going to be tough. There are no easy teams and you've got to play them all.
"Our kids are working hard and they're going to play every game. That's all you can ask. Hopefully, we learn with every game. We're the new kids on the block. We'll compete and play very hard."
Other teams in the East Division are Bellarmine, Southern Indiana, Kentucky Wesleyan, Indianapolis, Lewis, St. Joseph's and Wisconsin-Parkside. Bellarmine, which advanced to the Final Four last season, is the favorite to win the division.
McKendree will play 18 conference games. It will play each East Division team twice and will face four of the eight teams in the West Division once: Illinois-Springfield, Quincy, Maryville and Missouri-St. Louis. Other teams in the West Division are Drury, William Jewell, Missouri Science and Technology and Rockhurst.
Missouri-St. Louis is favored to win the West Division.
McKendree, which was 18-12 last season as an independent, opens the season against Tiffin (Ohio) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the GLVC/GLIAC Crossover Tournament at Maryville University in St. Louis. The Bearcats will play Ohio Dominican at 4 p.m. Sunday.
The Bearcats return four players in 6-foot-8 senior David Ruckman, of Freeburg, 6-4 senior John Steppe, of Effingham, 6-1 junior Clinton Happe, of Evansville, Ind., and 6-0 junior Drew Dudek, of Pinckneyville.
Ruckman, Steppe and Happe are projected as starters along with newcomers Mike DiGregorio, a 6-1 sophomore from Morton, and Matt Murphy, a 6-8 freshman from Jerseyville.
DiGregorio, who will play point guard, scored a team-high 20 points Saturday in an 82-54 exhibition loss at Missouri State.
DiGregorio sat out last season with a torn ACL. He originally signed with Wayne State, but transferred to Lincoln Land Community College and played one season.
"Mike's going to be an excellent player for McKendree," Statham said. "He's got a tremendous work ethic. He'll be our point guard and our floor leader. He plays aggressive, rugged defense. He has good court awareness. He gets to the rim exceptionally well and his perimeter shooting is getting better."
Steppe led McKendree in scoring last season at 13.9 points per game. He made 54 3-pointers and had 99 assists. Ruckman emerged as a force in the paint by averaging 10.5 points and 7.5 rebounds.
"They're our two senior co-captains," Statham said. "Dave will be a big, strong, physical presence inside. He's a banger on the boards. He plays with a lot of intensity. He'll be a hard-nosed competitor in the paint.
"John Steppe is an excellent 3-point shooter and free-throw shooter. He's stepped up his leadership on the court in practice. Hopefully, he'll be one of our steadier players. He could be a big-time scorer and he gets to the basket well."
Happe, who will play shooting guard, was a reserve his first two seasons at McKendree. He's a good shooter, but Statham is cautious about Happe becoming worn down.
"He's going to have to play a larger role," Statham said. "He's an excellent 3-pointer shooter and free-thrower. He competes hard.
"He doesn't have the size and strength to play at this level. He's going to be really challenged on the court. But he's got a lot of heart and he's a pretty smart player."
Murphy averaged 18.5 points and 10.3 rebounds last season at Jerseyville High, with 35 3-pointers and 64 blocks.
"Matt will be a (good) player for us this year," Statham said. "He has 3-point range for a big guy. He's a very intelligent player. He has to get used to the college game, the up-tempo style. But he's working hard at doing that. He wants to get better and has a great attitude."
Among the role players will be:
*Dudek, who played in 21 games last year and averaged 2.5 points.
* Freshman A.J. Schmidt, a 6-1 guard from New Albany, Ind., who averaged about 16 points as a senior at New Albany High.
*Freshman Matt DeLuka, a 6-2 guard from Hillsboro who scored more than 1,000 points in his high school career.
*Junior Josh Ramsey, a 6-8 forward from O'Fallon who made the team as a walk-on.
"A.J. Schmidt was an excellent high school player," Statham said. "He was a big-time scorer and he's smart with the ball. He's just a tough player. He's a step slow on quickness, but his intelligent play makes up for that. I think he will develop into a very good player."
The Bearcats long were an NAIA power before they made the transition to Division II and joined their new league. Statham said the demands of the future make it imperative to forget the past.
"My philosophy has always been not to look back," he said. "We left that (NAIA) arena. We're in a new one now. It doesn't matter any more. We're trying to press forward and make the adjustments as we go."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.