EMMITSBURG, Md. (WDVM) – Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball returns a core group of seniors this season that is ready to lead a new Mountaineers team back to the NEC Championship to defend it’s title.
“I feel like any team that wants to make a deep playoff run has to have that core group of guys that have done it,” said senior forward Malik Jefferson.
The Mount won the title last season with only one senior on the team, and none in the starting line up, and earned a 16th seed in the NCAA tournament where it fell in the first round to Texas Southern 60-52.
“To win in Division I basketball, you have to get old,” explained head coach Dan Engelstad. “This group has all the talent and potential to do something really special.”
The returning core, made up of forwards Malik Jefferson, Mezie Offurum, and Nana Opoku, has talked a lot about this season and what it will take for them to repeat and get back to the tournament.
“The one thing I’ve noticed is how much we work and just how everybody’s in tune with themselves and just wanting to get better,” said Offurum. “Everyone’s working out more [and] their diet has changed so people are taking it much more serious.”
There’s a theme that has run across Mount’s men’s basketball program for the past three seasons under Engelstad.
“We want to make history,” said Opoku.
The Mountaineers have never made it past the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“Coach Dan brings it up all the time,” said Jefferson. “We want to do something that nobody’s ever done here.”
Their role will be pivotal this season, not only for it being their last season together to try and put together another run, but for what their example will lead to with the next guys coming through the program.
“They’ve been the building blocks of what we’ve wanted to build here,” said Engelstad. “They all have extremely high character. They are extremely talented and they’re just extremely fun to be around and because they have those attributes, it spreads within the whole program.”
Jefferson, Offurum, and Opoku are around each other a lot as they share an apartment together on campus which Opoku says is a “pretty peaceful” experience “surprisingly,” that has translated well to their game.
“When you’re living with someone, you know their tendencies [and] you just automatically build upon the connection,” said Offurum.
This season, the team is still relatively young with 10 underclassmen on the roster, but who, despite their year, still played valuable minutes last season.
“I feel like it’s really important because with the core, we have that experience and that leadership that we can pass down to the younger guys,” said Opoku. “And just the confidence aspect, I just feel like we’re going to be fine regardless because we trust each other. We know what each person can do and we just know that when we step in between those lines – we can go to war with anyone.”
While the team focuses on the big picture, the coaching staff also stresses the importance of the day-to-day.
“We want to win the NEC back-to-back, and we have stuff that we haven’t achieved,” said Engelstad. This group has never won a regular season championship and to do that you just have to stay focused on the present and lock in to the every day work that it takes.”
Jefferson, Offurum, and Opoku and the rest of the Mount St. Mary’s squad tip off for a tough road game to start the season on November 9th at Villanova.
“They are leading this program and I am thankful every day that they are in our program.”