EDWARDSVILLE — A range of emotions filled Lennox Forrester this week as he anticipated the start of his fifth season as the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville men's basketball coach.
"Nervousness, the anxiousness, everything. That's just how the feel of it is," said Forrester, whose Cougars open the season at 4 p.m. Saturday at Missouri.
"Sometimes you wish you had more time (to prepare), but you're anxious to see what you have," he said. "You're nervous because you're hoping that your players play hard and well. So there's a lot of emotion that goes into it. Hopefully, our guys will come out and compete and give it all that they have."
The Cougars were 10-18 overall and 6-10 in the Ohio Valley Conference last year. They finally are eligible to compete in the OVC Tournament and qualify for the NCAA Tournament, completing the transition from Division II to Division I.
"The fact that our guys have something to play for (helps)," Forrester said. "Last year, we had the opportunity to play for the regular-season (OVC) title. This year, we have an opportunity to play for the regular-season title, go to postseason play in the conference tournament and also the NCAA Tournament. When you have those things, it does bring a lot more for your players to be able to play for and work hard for.
"Before, when we were going through this transition, when that last game ended, your season was done. The thought of being able to play for something after the end of the regular season gives you a lot more concentration ... and motivation to do some special things."
OVC coaches and sports information directors picked the Cougars to finish fourth of six teams in the West Division of the OVC. Murray State, Southeast Missouri and Austin Peay were picked to finish ahead of SIUE in the division.
The Cougars return three starters from last season in 6-foot-6 senior Mark Yelovich, 6-5 senior Jerome Jones and 6-2 sophomore Kris Davis. All averaged in double figures, with Yelovich leading the way at 15.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Yelovich, a forward, will be the focus of every opponent's defense, although Jones (12.7 points, 5.9 rebounds), Davis (11.6 points) and newcomers Maurice Wiltz, a 6-2 sophomore who transferred from Colorado State, and 6-7 senior Derian Shaffer are dangerous in their own right.
Yelovich, a second-team all-OVC selection, has 1,212 career points and needs just 56 points to move into third place all-time at SIUE.
"He's been the cornerstone of our program the last four years," Forrester said. "I expect him to do a whole lot of rebounding and scoring for us. He can score in different ways; he can score from the free-throw line, he can score from the perimeter and he can also score from inside. So I see him carrying that huge burden for us."
Wiltz will play point guard after sitting out last season per NCAA rules. Forrester said the Cougars will rely heavily on Wiltz and shooting guard Davis to ease the load on Yelovich.
"Wiltz can score from the 3, he can drive to the basket and he can score off the defense a little bit," Forrester said. "So he's going to take a lot of pressure off just the one guy. And Kris Davis has gotten better. He's still a good shooter and he's stronger and more athletic. He can score in a variety of ways, too."
Jones and Shaffer will provide bulk and athleticism in the paint. Shaffer averaged 7.1 points and 5.7 rebounds last year.
"He's gotten better and he's going to be a cleanup guy on the offensive glass," Forrester said. "He's going to be a guy who scores not so much with his back to the basket, but more on angles. He'll also get to the free-throw line.
"Jerome Jones, one thing we're trying to work on with him is cutting down on the turnovers because he had so many last year. At the same time, he's shooting the ball way better from the perimeter. He's being a little more effective out there."
Forrester said the Cougars won't be as thin on the bench. He's confident he will get production from role players like 5-9 senior Reggie Reed, 6-4 sophomore Charles Joy, of O'Fallon, 6-4 junior Tim Johnson, a transfer from George Washington, 6-6 sophomore Michael Messer, 6-6 junior Ray Lester, 6-6 sophomore Michael Birts and 6-9 senior Zeke Schneider.
"I think we have a deeper bench than what we had in the past," Forrester said. "I think our team is a lot more athletic and a better-shooting team than we have been in the past. But we're still kind of behind on what we think we can be. We've still got a lot of room to make improvement."
Johnson, described by Forrester as an "energy guy," had 27 points and 15 rebounds in SIUE's first exhibition game, an 84-50 win over Greenville on Nov. 1.
"He can run the floor and get buckets, he can shoot 3s, he can put it on the floor and hit a pull-up jump shot and he can get to the rim," Forrester said. "He's very, very athletic."
Joy, meanwhile, has made strides after averaging just 1.6 points and 1.7 rebounds last season in limited minutes.
"He's shooting the ball way better than he did last year," Forrester said. "He's making shots in practice. We've just got to get him to get out there and play a little bit harder and pay attention to details."
Forrester was not satisfied with the Cougars' 77-59 exhibition victory over Division III MacMurray on Tuesday.
"I didn't like the fact we were very sloppy with the basketball," Forrester said. "We had 17 turnovers. And we were nonaggressive defensively. It taught us a lot because we're not quite there defensively.
"At the same time, the mistakes (on offense) we were making were from not being aggressive. They were simple A to B passes. It was rebounding the basketball and having people take it right out of our hands. So I was disappointed in that part of it."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.