SALISBURY, Md. – Although the Salisbury University men's basketball team missed the 2011-12 Capital Athletic Conference Tournament in the first year of Head Coach Josh Merkel's tenure at his alma mater, the Sea Gulls made strides toward becoming a contender for the conference crown.
Salisbury (12-13, 5-11 CAC in 2011-12) started strong, going 8-3 heading into the holiday break, won the Pride of Maryland Tournament, topped then-No. 1 Virginia Wesleyan College and earned the program's first-ever national ranking from D3hoops.com. SU, though, stumbled to a 4-10 finish, including falling in its final four games.
Rather than dwelling on what could have been, Merkel and his team have put last season behind them, while using it as a learning experience.
"We talk about the difference between winning and losing being minute, being very small, being a play here or a rebound there, a deflection here, a made shot," he said. "So, we've turned the page on last year and are ready to move forward for this season, and I'm really excited and enthused by our group of young men.
"I think that we have a great group that wants to do something special and knows that it's going to take hard work to get there."
Salisbury has a solid mix of eight returners and eight newcomers, including three transfers from NCAA Divisions I and II.
"All three of those guys were here for the summer," Merkel said. "They put time in the weight room and in the gym. There is urgency in their preparation and it shows in how they're practicing right now."
Epps will again anchor the middle. Now in his second year at SU, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound Germantown, Md., native is the Sea Gulls' top returning scorer and rebounder averaging 9.2 points and five rebounds in 22 games and 13 starts a year ago.
He twice scored a career-high 17 points in a game as a junior, most recently against York (Pa.) College on Feb. 21. Epps also earned CAC Men's Basketball Player of the Week on Feb. 6.
Merkel expects Epps, an outstanding low-post presence, to take another step in his development this season.
Junior Troy King, a transfer from the University of Tennessee-Martin in the Ohio Valley Conference and high-school teammate of Epps at St. John's Prospect Hall, will also be a force up front. In two seasons at UTM, King averaged 8.6 points and 3.2 rebounds in 63 career games.
"He is a versatile forward who can play inside and out – he has a nose for the ball," said Merkel.
Sophomore Derrick Miller returns after playing just five games off the bench last year.
"[He] is one of our best rebounders and he's one of our toughest players and he challenges whoever is guarding him every single day in practice," said Merkel.
"Our freshman class, we're really excited about," Merkel said. "They are a group of high character young men willing to learn and work hard to improve."
At 6-4 and 210 pounds, Gillum played his prep basketball at Northwest High School in Germantown.
"He is a hard worker with great athleticism. He has not even turned 18 yet so his best basketball is ahead of him," said Merkel of Gillum. "He wants to be a great player."
Miller helped his Easton High School team to the Class 2A state semifinals at the University of Maryland's Comcast Center three of his four years at the school.
The coaching staff believes Miller is one of the team's best defenders in the post to go along with having shooting range to 17 feet.
Rogers also helped the Sherwood High School Warriors to the Class 4A semifinals at Comcast Center. The 6-foot-5 Olney, Md., product is left-handed and possesses great shooting touch.
Ruland, at 6-foot-8 and 200 pounds, was part of Magruder High School's Class 4A state championship team in 2011-12.
"People always ask me about our size and Luke Ruland is 6-8," Merkel said. "He's extremely well coached and skilled for 6-8. He's not the low-post bruiser; he's really played on the perimeter nearly all his life and can shoot and dribble."
Savercool played in the Washington Catholic Athletic Association at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School for former Wicomico High School standout Blair Mills.
Merkel believes the quintet has the ability to make an immediate impact.
"Some are a little more game ready than others, but they're all making strides everyday in practice and are pushing our other guys to get better as well," he said.
They will be counted on to help fill a void left by the graduation of arguably SU's two best players last season in Mike Maczko and Mike Atkins. The duo averaged 12.5 points and 10.7 points per game, respectively.
The bulk of Salisbury's experience will come from its guards this season. Seniors Dylan Robeson, Gore and Ryan will provide leadership for a team that lost senior point guard Devin Posey, while classmate Travon Vann, a transfer from California (Pa.) University, another St. John's Prospect Hall graduate, should be able to contribute right away.
Robeson averaged 2.2 points and one assist per game last year, making four starts.
Merkel has seen improvement in Robeson's shot over the summer, calling him "one of our best from 3-point land.
"He's added a little more dribble to his game, he's more comfortable handling the ball under pressure and is one of our best pound-for-pound defenders," he continued.
Gore appeared in 17 games off the bench last season, scoring 4.8 points per game. Merkel noted Gore, Epps and Ryan "are primed to take another step. They are seniors, they know it's they're last year, they're leaving it out there, they have bought into the system and are way more comfortable with our concepts offensively," he said.
Ryan played in 23 games and averaged 2.3 points last year.
Vann was the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division Defensive Player of the Year last season for the Vulcans. A 6-foot-3 guard from Frederick, Md., Vann averaged 7.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game in 71 career games.
Viqueira, a junior, will be counted on more this season. He averaged 4.9 points in 19 games last season while connecting on all 12 free throws. According to Merkel, Viqueira, Epps and sophomore Tim Harwood were voted by teammates to have worked on their games the hardest over the summer.
Harwood led the team in three-point percentage a year ago, knocking down 32-of-60 shots from beyond the arc, good for 53.3 percent.
"Harwood, who had a great season [last year] for us, has raised his game to another level," Merkel said. "It's obvious the work that he has put in is paying off. He had a great season shooting it for us but he's also aggressive and fearless in attacking the rim. He's incredibly unselfish and a great passer."
Sophomore Conor Strickland, a transfer from Catawba College, will have three years of eligibility remaining.
Merkel is high on Strickland, whose father, Pete, is in his 22nd season as a Division I assistant coach, currently at George Washington University.
"Strickland is a pass-first point guard," he said. "We're excited about him; he's a gym rat, a basketball guy."
Junior Brandyn Wilkerson saw action in eight games last season and will provide depth off the bench in 2012-13.
Salisbury will play four teams that advanced to the NCAA tournament last season after opening the season against Washington (Md.) College at Maggs Physical Activities Center on Nov. 15.
The Sea Gulls take on Virginia Wesleyan on Dec. 17 in Virginia Beach, Va., before facing Eastern Connecticut State University at the Sponaugle Tournament, hosted by Franklin & Marshall College on Jan. 2.
SU will also play a pair of CAC games with the league's two NCAA tournament representatives.
"It's a top-notch schedule," said Merkel. "We talk about to be the best, you play the best and we're willing to play anybody, any place anytime – that's our mentality. In order to advance in the NCAAs, I think you have to test yourself, and I think our league is very good. We want to test ourselves outside the league, too. Without struggle, there can be no growth."
SU will challenge itself when the Sea Gulls travels to Kaplan Arena in Williamsburg, Va., to play a regular-season game against the Division I College of William & Mary on Dec. 21 at 7 p.m.
"We always play Virginia Wesleyan, who is preseason number two in the country. We always play Christopher Newport, and then we went outside of that and said 'can we get a test, playing against a Division I opponent? Can we test ourselves against the very best in the area?'"