The Neosho Wildcats, under new head coach Zane Culp, open their season the Monday after Thanksgiving against Nevada in the 72nd annual Carthage Invitational.
Culp becomes the third head coach in four seasons, though he's been a Neosho assistant for the four previous seasons, and the Wildcats have an upperclassmen-dominated roster.
"I'm excited," Culp said after the jamboree against Joplin, Lamar, and McDonald County. "The boys have been working hard. They, as a unit, want to get better every day. That makes my job easy coaching in practice. I'm just proud of them because they came out here, after losing a big senior (Brady Wise) from last year and one of our good players (Derek Ferguson) being hurt, they came out here and played hard. That's mainly what you're looking at, because you're not refined yet. I thought they performed well. Just got our football players back. We're getting ready for that first game."
Culp's ties with this season's senior class, for example, have been a help for easing the inevitable transition process from previous head coach Tony Branscum, now the athletic director at East Newton.
"The senior class now, I was their eighth grade coach," Culp said. "I was their coach for their freshman and sophomore years and last year their varsity assistant, so there's no familiarity problem. It's a matter of getting things done in a different way, because obviously each coach is different. They've come to buy into it, because I think they see the differences can make a big positive impact."
Neosho returns seniors Cade Cradduck, Kaden King, A.C. Marion, and Cole Seward, all of whom have starting experience together last season. The Wildcats also have senior Ferguson and juniors Sam Cook, Kaden Dickens, Mason Gammons, and Quincey Willis in the equation.
Marion averaged 14 points and 7.5 rebounds last season and he's the leading returning scorer and rebounder who recorded several double-doubles last season. Seward, a transfer from Diamond, averaged 8.6 points and showed a knack for making big shots late to win games. King helmed the point and he's the quintessential floor general.
Nearly all these players were experiencing their first extended minutes at the varsity level and that resulted in a 6-20 overall and 2-5 Central Ozark Conference record.
The Wildcats are banking they can improve on those marks this season.
"Having five seniors is big," Culp said. "They seem much more composed. When bad things happen, it doesn't have to ruin the next five plays. It's just that one. When they need to make a shot, they've already done it or have the capability to do it. They believe in themselves a little bit more. Playing a whole year of varsity will do that.
"We're hopeful, but I like tell them, you've got to come prove it every day at practice. You can't just step out on a court one day at a game and say 'Hey, this is what I want to do.' They've done a good job of that."
Ferguson missed the jamboree, but he's a key piece for the Wildcats.
"He didn't play last year," Culp said, "but he played all summer and played well. He's 6-foot-5, 6-6, and just a really skilled guy. He gets his cast off (before the season), so we're hoping he's ready to roll."
Ferguson's length (and skill) should definitely help a Neosho program not always equipped with length going up against the trees in the COC.
"I think we'll be able to put a pretty big lineup out there," Culp said. "Sam Cook's 6-4 and Cade Cradduck being 6-4, 6-5. With Cradduck and Ferg being guard types, we'll have a big lineup sometimes. That will help us compete and help us suppress some other teams from scoring.
"It's a much different change of pace, since I've been here. Four years, we've never had any opportunity to put three guys out there over 6-3. It's really good."
Neosho opens with the Carthage Tournament and the Wildcats' other tournaments include the Battle at Pea Ridge and their own Holiday Classic, both in December.
Additionally, the Wildcats play Frontenac (Kansas) in the second 4-States Basketball Coaches Association showcase event at Webb City and play in the Ozark Shootout.
Neosho still plays local rivals Seneca, East Newton, and McDonald County, while longtime opponent Joplin makes its debut in the COC.
The Wildcats have dropped from Class 5 to Class 4 this season and their new District 12 foes include Carl Junction, Cassville, McDonald County, Monett, and Webb City, all of whom are on the schedule during the regular season.
Nov. 26-Dec. 1 — Carthage Tournament
Dec. 3 — vs. Cassville
Dec. 6-8 — Battle at Pea Ridge
Dec. 11 — at Monett
Dec. 14 — vs. Seneca
Dec. 15 — vs. Frontenac (at Webb City)
Dec. 27-29 — Neosho Holiday Classic
Jan. 8 — at Republic
Jan. 11 — at Willard
Jan. 12 — Ozark Shootout
Jan. 18 — at East Newton
Jan. 25 — vs. McDonald County
Jan. 29 — vs. Carl Junction
Feb. 1 — vs. Ozark
Feb. 5 — at Carthage
Feb. 8 — at Branson
Feb. 12 — at Webb City
Feb. 15 — vs. Nixa
Feb. 18 — vs. Joplin