Just because the Catholic men's basketball team has a single-digit ranking in front of its name as the 2015-16 season dawns, the expectations haven't changed for one of Division III's longtime contenders.
Veteran coach Steve Howes has embraced the lofty expectations for his Cardinals. However, the Landmark Conference favorites have grander goals than being ranked in the preseason poll. They are focused, hungry and determined to finish as the last Division III men's basketball team standing in Salem in March.
"It's great to be recognized preseason and postseason, but we liked to be ranked higher at the end of the year," Howes said. "The (national ranking) is great for recruiting, university pride and for excitement on campus with the season starting. However, we understand this has to be earned every single day in practice. It does place a big target on you, but we're excited for the challenges ahead of us this season.
"This is why (my players) came to Catholic – because we have a tradition of excellence. The expectations are always high and dreams are always big."
After all, Howes has taken the baton from former coach Mike Lonegran, now the head coach at crosstown George Washington, and kept the program at a consistent level. Howes has guided CUA to six 20-win seasons, nine postseason tournaments, three conference championships, two regular-season titles and four NCAA Tournaments. The Cardinals, who won the 2001 national championship, are used to aspiring to compete at an elite level so a little preseason attention shouldn't rattle them.
"Of course, who wouldn't want that?" Howes said. "There are years when you'd like to see your name up that high. We have to embrace it and try to do better. Life is short. Our goals are to get to Salem. It's great recognition of what we have now and the proud tradition of the program from the coaches who been have been here. We're humbled, excited and hopefully we can play at a consistently high level this year."
Playing at a high level this season shouldn't be a concern for the Cardinals, who are loaded, returning all five starters and 13 letterwinners returning from last year's team. Catholic won 23 games, the Landmark's regular-season title and a game in the NCAA Tournament against Alvernia.
The Cardinals have several go-to players, most notably Bryson Fonville (16.7 points, 5.4 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals per game). The senior guard, who earned the Landmark Conference's Player of the Year award and was an honorable mention All-American selection during the 2014-15 campaign, was named a preseason first-team All-American by D3hoops.com.
He is a beast and the engine that fuels the Cardinals high-powered machine. The Greensboro, N.C., native played all 40 minutes seven times last season, going over 20 points on six occasions including a career-high and incandescent 38 in CUA's NCAA Tournament first round victory over Alvernia.
"It's a good achievement to be recognized, but we understand that it's just somebody's opinion," Fonville said. "Every night we understand that we are playing a different team and have to bring it each in order to reach our goals. (Being named a preseason All-American) is a major accomplishment for me individually, but it only happens because of how well our team does collectively."
Believe it or not, there was a time when Fonville's goal was just to earn a few minutes of playing time as a backup, which is a thought foreign to those that have witnessed his mesmerizing and dynamic game. It's comparable to somebody like Beyonce asking just to be a background dancer.
"He's the best point guard in country and I'm glad he's getting recognition," Howes said. "He's a humble young man with enormous talent and he does a great job of getting his teammates involved in the game. He's efficient as a point guard but at the same time he's an explosive athlete who can get us baskets when they are needed. I remember a young man who was quiet when he first got here and all he wanted to do was earn a spot as a backup. Of course, he goes on to start that year and leads us to the NCAA Tournament. He's a vocal leader, mature and makes everyone on the floor better."
Sophomore forward Jay Howard (17 points, six rebounds per game), who was chosen as the conference's Rookie of the Year, is thankful for Fonville. Howard reached double-digits in scoring 10 times last season. The 6-3 Howard also made 53.3 percent of his shots. Junior forward Corey Stanford (14.6 points, 7.8 rebounds per game) will add production and leadership to a formidable lineup.
"The national ranking really means nothing now," Howard said. "It's nice to be sixth in the country now, but we want to be higher in March. For that to happen, we have to work hard and push each other in practice and during games. That will allow us to go far. We also have a group of guys that know when to have fun and are really tight as a group, which allows us to play better as a team."
The Cardinals aren't finished with the weapons.
Senior guard Kyle Phanord (9.8 points, 2.3 rebounds) was fourth on the team in scoring and his twin brother Kevin Phanord (2.1 points, 2.2 rebounds) is the reigning Landmark Defensive Player of the Year. Senior forward Austin Calling (6.6 points, 4.9 rebounds) is another effective option in the low post.
"We have to be who we are," Howes said. "That means zero ego. I have a great group of young men who are tight and want to achieve something special. They compete hard every day in practice and enjoy each other. There's no selfishness among this group. They are an enjoyable group in a me-first culture."
Of course, Catholic's opponents may not find the Cardinals so enjoyable on the floor during the season.
Catholic University men's basketball opens the 2015-16 season at home in the DuFour Center on Saturday at 2 p.m., hosting Neumann.