EDWARDSVILLE — The Edwardsville Tigers are trying their best to ignore talk that they are the favorites to win another Southwestern Conference championship.
"The best thing is to focus each day on what you do in practice. We don't really talk a lot about those things," 25th-year Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo said.
"Our guys like basketball and each one of them wants to improve individually," he said. "They understand the team aspect of basketball. Getting better each day is what you need to be thinking about, not how many games you're going to win."
The Tigers shared the conference title with Collinsville last season and return four of their five starters from a team that finished 24-6 and reached the Class 4A Normal Super-Sectional.
Led by 6-foot-5 seniors Garret Covington and Tre Harris, the Tigers again seem to have what it takes to play deep into March.
Edwardsville opens the season at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday against Waterloo in the Waterloo Round Robin. It also will play (St. Louis) Gateway Tech, Highland and Mater Dei in the tourney.
Covington, who has signed with Western Illinois, averaged 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds a game as a junior with 86 3-pointers. He shot 83 percent from the free-throw line (107-for-129).
Harris averaged 17.5 points and 9.7 rebounds with 31 3-pointers, shooting 77 percent from the line (154-for-201). Harris was offered a Division I scholarship to David Lipscomb, but Waldo said he will put off his decision until after the season.
"(Covington) has really improved," Waldo said. "He's worked hard lifting weights. He's just done a good job getting better every year. He's improved in all aspects of basketball.
"Tre Harris had a very good summer and offseason. He's much improved in all aspects of basketball, too. He's a good shooter, he's good going to the basket and he's also an excellent defensive player and a good rebounder. He does a lot of things well."
Junior Shawn Roundtree returns at point guard and will be joined on the wing by 6-5 senior Drew Curtis.
Roundtree averaged eight points and nearly six assists a game last season. Like Covington and Harris, he regularly got to the free-throw line, where he hit 78 percent of his attempts (90-for-116).
"He did a good job as our lead guard and he's really improved on that," Waldo said. "He's a better shooter this year. Shawn understands basketball well and is really a good point guard."
Curtis averaged 5.1 points and 6.6 rebounds and hit 30 3-pointers.
"Curtis did a lot of good things for us last year, and he's improved as well," Waldo said. "He shoots the ball well, passes well and is a good defender. He's a big guy who can shoot and pass. He's an excellent screener, which is big in basketball."
Armon Fletcher, a 6-5 junior, will be a first-year starter. He replaces the Tigers' lone graduate from their lineup last year, Josh White.
"He's a big guy who can shoot," Waldo said of Fletcher. "He's got a lot of length, he's good around the basket and he can alter shots and rebound well."
Coming off the bench will be 5-8 senior point guard Jaleel Joshua and a pair of 6-1 juniors, Darian Brown and Darius Crochrell.
"I think that's a good number of people to play," said Waldo, who isn't keen on having an overly deep roster. "Eight guys can usually have a pretty good idea of what they're supposed to be doing all the time."
Waldo said White and Diarra Cropper, a reserve last season, will be missed.
"They're going to be hard to replace defensively," Waldo said. "We're going to miss those guys and we're going to have to do our best to try to replace those guys."
The Tigers won 11 games by eight or fewer points last season, an indication to Waldo that they executed well down the stretch.
That will be necessary again to hold off SWC contenders like Belleville East, East St. Louis and perhaps Belleville West.
"We did a good job guarding last year, and that always gives you a chance to win," Waldo said. "We made big plays down the stretch to help us win games. You always need those things to have a good record and win the conference. We want to try to do that again, but we want to be an even better team than we were last year.
"I think we'll be a pretty good team, but I think a lot of other teams are going to be pretty good, too. It's going to be very competitive this year. Our conference is really good. Anybody can beat anybody. It comes down to who executes the best in games."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.