An almost all-new Lee University men's basketball team wasn't expected to be a threat for national honors this season, despite the arrival of many talented players. With 10 newcomers and only one guy back who averaged more than five points a game for them last year, coach Tommy Brown's Flames were outside the top 25 in the NAIA Division I preseason poll.
But here they are, ranked 17th at 20-8 and again headed to Kansas City, Mo., for the national tournament. And they've played the top-ranked team, Shorter, extremely close and whipped fifth-seeded Southern Polytechnic by 25 points on Feb. 16.
Lee opens play Thursday at 9 p.m. EDT against Georgetown (Ky.), which is seeded 14th and making a record 21st consecutive appearance.
It's a one-shot chance for senior transfers such as Tyrone Caldwell, the point guard from Austin Peay, and Ryan Westbrooks, the team's leading scorer despite coming off the bench. He won the Southern States Athletic Conference's sixth-man award for the 2011-12 season.
Westbrooks, who starred one season at Cleveland State before going to Montevallo and eventually returning to the city of Cleveland, has averaged 16.9 points a game and shot 43.2 percent from 3-point range. He and junior Alex Wells from East Ridge and Chattanooga State each has made 60 3-pointers, and Wells is second on the team with 12 points a game.
The 6-foot Caldwell has averaged 11 points and 4.8 assists, and 28-year-old Steve Bennett is next in scoring with 9.7 points a game after getting a late start on the season because of a torn calf muscle. Bennett is a 6-foot-10, 285-pound junior center from Rockingham (N.C.) Community College who also averages six rebounds a game.
Josh Henley, a senior transfer from Gardner-Webb, leads Lee with 7.1 rebounds a game.
"Coming here helped me step out of my comfort zone," Caldwell said about leaving his hometown, Clarksville, and hometown university, APSU. "I felt like I was a freshman at the same time I was a senior leader."
He just wanted to finish his college career "playing the minutes I knew I was capable of," and he's got his wish with a team-high average of 32.2 a game.
"I love it. Coach lets us find mismatches," Caldwell said. "He puts us in a formula to find the best situations for our playmakers, and we've got a lot of talented players starting and coming off the bench. It makes it pretty easy when we're all on the same page."
With all the new players coming together, that process continues.
"We definitely have seen progress," said Bennett, who knew Lee's leading returner from last year, Johnny Godette, from their junior college league, "but we still haven't seen our best basketball. We've had some good games on offense and some on defense. We were on against Southern Poly on both ends. That showed us what we can do."
Bennett said the team has "definitely been up and down on defense, but the focus has changed to late-game defense and crucial stops. If you can't play defense, you can't play for Coach Brown."
Caldwell said the Flames have had a tendency to "play up and down to our competition," but they know every team at Kansas City will be good.
"The way we've played against the top teams shows how good we can be on a nightly basis," he said. "We've got all the pieces, and we know now what we're trying to do. We just have to cherish every possession, because all of them are critical now."