After finishing 20-4 overall and 12-2 in the Big Sky Conference a year ago, the Southern Utah men's basketball team is primed to make another run this season, with hopes of punching a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
The preseason awards have poured in for the Thunderbirds, with Tevian Jones being named preseason conference MVP and John Knight III and Maizen Fausett joining him as picks on the Preseason All-Big Sky team.
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Jones was also named to the Lou Henson Award Watch List, which looks to identify the best mid-major player.
Jones was named to the Big Sky First Team last season after averaging 16.9 points per game. Knight III and Fausett were named to the Second Team.
Also back into the fold is 5th-year senior Dre Marin, an All-Conference Honorable Mention in 2021.
With so much production and experience returning, Southern Utah was picked as the favorite to win the conference and was named the 23rd best Mid-Major team, as well as ranking just outside the top-100 in all of DI basketball.
"We attack it head-on," said head coach Todd Simon. "When something's not what we expect, it's like, is that a championship effort? People are saying you're this. Was what you just did 106th in the nation or first in the league? This is the expectation. Our performance has to match that expectation."
Team captains Knight III and Marin say the team is staying level, despite the preseason recognition.
"When the game comes, we have to play every game the same," Knight III said. "Not get too high, not get too low and treat everybody the same."
"It's a long season; it's a marathon," Martin added. "We have to be the best T-Birds we can be every single day. As long as we keep striving for that and have high expectations and hold each other accountable, we'll be where we need to be."
Last year, Southern Utah averaged 84.2 points per game, third-best in the nation behind NCAA tourney runner-up Gonzaga (91.0) and Colgate (85.2), who lost to Arkansas in the Round of 64 in 2021.
The Thunderbirds bring back their top seven scorers, including four out of five starters.
With the top seven scorers returning, Simon thinks his team can be even better offensively and said he thought his team left points on the board at various points last season.
Knight III, an explosive, downhill guard, says he's worked on his perimeter game after attempting only 20 threes a year ago.
A reliable outside jumper could be the key to opening more driving lanes for Jones and give Fausett more room to operate in the post and out on the perimeter, where he hit 41% of his threes on 70 attempts.
Marin shot 44% from three on 113 attempts, adding another floor spacer.
The only major piece missing from last year's team is Ivan Madunic, who averaged 4.0 points per game and 4.0 rebounds per game.
Simon noted that Australian big man Jason Spurgin could slide into that starting spot and make an impact.
"(He's) had a wonderful summer and he's going to be a factor for us at the five spot," Simon said. "Dee Barnes, Aanen Moody — those guys have really emerged as guys who are going to help us. They're both two-way players who can hit big shots."
Moody and Barnes, along with Harrison Butler, were key reserves for Simon in 2021.
With the plethora of options returning to the mix, it's NCAA Tournament or bust for SUU.
After claiming the regular-season title a year ago, Southern Utah was upended in the Big Sky Conference Tournament by Montana State University 80-77 in overtime despite leading 42-32 at halftime.
"I think we got comfortable," Simon said. "We had a double-digit lead, and the guys kind of got comfortable and kind of throttled it down."
"I think as a team we learned how to handle success and not get a big head and stay level," Knight III said. "That loss motivated us to come back."
The Thunderbirds open their season on Tuesday against Bethesda University, and pack University of California, University of Michigan. Yale, Saint Mary's College, and a pair of matchups with Dixie State into their non-conference schedule.
Conference play tips off on Dec. 2 against Eastern Washington.
Sean Ellertson is a sports reporter for the St. George Spectrum & Daily News. To continue to support his work, please subscribe to The Spectrum. Follow Sean on Twitter @SeanEllertson.
This article originally appeared on St. George Spectrum & Daily News: SUU enters season as Big Sky favorites, with hopes of NCAA tourney bid