The long awaited return to the courts is finally upon DII Men’s basketball. It’s time to refocus and prepare for the stretch run to both the conference and national championship tournaments.

This past Tuesday, the most recent NABC Coaches Poll was released. Not much changed at the top of the poll as the nation’s top six remained the same as they were heading into the break. The West Liberty Hilltoppers remained No. 1 in the country, behind their high-flying offense that is producing a nation’s best 110 points per game.

The bottom half of the Top 25 however, is another story. Eight teams jumped up the charts, while five new teams entered the rankings heading into the new year. And it just so happens that another Hilltoppers team may be on the radar for 2016.

St. Edwards head coach Andre Cook has his team sitting at 9-1 on the young season. A strong, undefeated December (minus an exhibition loss to DI Rice) also saw them start Heartland Conference play at 2-0 with early wins against Newman and Oklahoma Christian. 

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The past few seasons have been a learning and growing process for Cook and his team. Just two short years ago, this was a 10-16 team. Last season, they improved greatly, finishing the year at 22-8 and making their first Heartland Conference tournament since the 2009-1010 season.

“If you go back to that 10-win team two years ago,” Cook explained, “for a good portion of it we started three freshman. There were some tough losses, there were a lot of nights I just wanted to give them a hug. They battled and competed every night.

“I thought we would take a step forward last year because of all those tough games that they went through. I didn’t expect us to start off 12-0 and then be ranked. But we changed our recruiting philosophy and they’ve gotten better quickly.”

Cook is entering his seventh season at the helms of the Hilltoppers. It hasn’t been an easy road since he took over from head coach Ryan Marks, who took St. Edwards to some of the biggest heights in program history.

“My predecessor did a great job,” Cook said. “He went three years in a row [to the NCAA tournament], the only three years the program has made it. I had to find my niche coming from New York, and it took a few years.”

This season, the Hilltoppers returned 11 players. “We targeted this as the year we could really make the jump,” Cook said. “We have four starters back, and six of our top seven scorers are back.”

It started this summer when Cook and his team traveled to Central America. They spent a week in Costa Rica, and it wasn’t all about basketball. It was about coming together and building a chemistry in which they could form an unbreakable bond. A bond that would teach them to put the team above any individual goals they may have.

They got off to a fast start, and it was behind the leadership of Frankie Mgbulo. Mgbulo is a fifth-year senior after tearing his ACL his freshman season. Entering Thursday nights game, Mgbulo has answered the call, averaging 15.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.5 steals a contest.

“We’re so lucky to have him,” Cook said. “Two months into his career he tears his ACL. Then he battles back, and since then, we have built this program around him. We now recruit high school kids that will fit into the program like Frank. He is the model of guys we want. He’s team first and he could care less about his stats.” 

Also helping leading the charge is junior guard Ramir Burton. Burton hails from New York, where his head coach originally called home as well. He won the last Heartland Conference Player of the Week Award of 2015 behind a remarkable two game span. He had a career-high 37-point night (including an unbelievable 21-for-22 from the free throw line) followed by a 20-point performance.

“We were so lucky to get Ramir, he is a tremendous player,” Cook said. “He is such a good kid that he is a reluctant star. He doesn’t like it when I tell him he is our best player. Our seniors are ok with Ramir when he gets 35, they just want to win. It’s not an occasional thing we need from him, we need it all the time. As a junior now, he understands that.”

Last season, St. Edwards started 12-0 and finished the season beyond expectations. This year, they want to build on their past success and continue to move forward to that ultimate goal. “We want to win the Heartland and make the NCAA tournament, that would be a great step for the program because we know it’s hard,” Cook said.

They have learned a few things early on in the 2015-2016 season. Despite nine impressive victories, it was an early season loss that has the Hilltoppers playing so well right now. 

“We took the most positives from our loss [79-78 against Angelo State]," Cook explained. "Angelo State is No. 6 in the country. We were down 15 with four minutes to go on the road. We just stuck to it, stuck to it, and before you know it, we have the ball with 13 seconds left and a chance to win it. We left that game saying, ‘we can take this next step’. We left that tournament [ASU Ed Messbarger Tip-Off Classic] feeling pretty good — cautiously optimistic — but pretty good.”

The Heartland Conference is a season long grind. It includes road trips that forces teams to travel across three states in Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma, while sometimes traveling six hours for matchup within their own state of Texas. This has been the Achilles heel the past few seasons for St. Edwards. During their 22-8 run last season, they were 16-2 at home. 

Looking to make their road woes a thing of the past, Cook and his Hilltoppers came out of the break with their first huge test. They would travel to Fort Smith (Arkansas) and Rogers State (Oklahoma) in the span of three days. They also happen to be two of the premier teams in the Heartland Conference.

“This is a hard trip,” Cook said heading into Thursday night’s bout. “They [Fort Smith and Rogers State] are a combined 18-2 and one of those losses was against each other. Last year, yes we were 22-8, but we weren’t even competitive in these two road games. Fort Smith has a lot of guys back. To be able to get one on the road is going to get you separation because not many people are winning here [their home court RCC in Austin].”

Despite dropping Thursday’s game to Fort Smith, it was much different than last year’s bout in which the Hilltoppers fell by double-digits 88-72 on the road. Thursday’s game was much closer, as they lost 91-83 but were competitive for most of the afternoon. They played the first half to a tie (43-43) and were ahead in the turnover game 22 to three. They simply couldn’t overcome a performance that Fort Smith shot an unbelievable 63-percent from the floor and 85-percent from three-point land.

A strong start to the new year will keep the Hilltoppers on pace to once again reach the Heartland Conference tournament. Stealing a few signature wins along the way will make that elusive NCAA tournament birth that much more of a reality for Cook. 

If there was ever a team he felt could — or wanted to for that matter — do it, it’s his current group of players.

“These are fantastic kids,” Cook said. “We have a 3.28 GPA. They do the right things, they go to class, they go to practice, they listen to their coach. 

“Being a head coach for 20 years, you learn to enjoy the group. You don’t get frustrated about whether we didn’t do this or we didn’t do that. It would be fantastic to take this group to the NCAA tournament. Most of the guys were here two years ago when we were 10-16, they’ve just been so laser focused. They’ve worked hard to get here.”