LANCASTER, Pa. – A core nucleus of returners and key reserves combined with an excellent freshmen class has anticipation high in Lancaster. The Diplomats are picked to win the Centennial Conference (CC) again this season in the preseason poll voted on by coaches and athletic communication directors in the conference. F&M also received numerous preseason rankings with the No. 6 ranking by DIII News and earned the No. 9 spot from D3hoops.com.
All of the preseason hype is for a good reason.
F&M returns eight players from last year's team for the upcoming campaign, including four starters. The Diplomats posted a record of 28-3, won an unprecedented third consecutive CC title, 18th conference title overall, and fourth consecutive regular season crown. F&M advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the 23rd time, made the Elite Eight for the 10th time and put together the 24th 21-win season in school history.
The largest void to fill will be that of the program's all-time leading scorer in Georgio Milligan, but the Diplomats also lost a core of senior players that brought experience and leadership to the team.
"We lost the national player of the year with Georgio graduating and that will be impossible to replace with one person," said coach Glenn Robinson. "We also graduated a group in David Balderston, Nick Mraz and Ty Savastio who provided great leadership to our team and were excellent role players."
Tasked with taking over one of the leadership roles and headlining the group of returners is forward Hayk Gyokchyan. Gyokchyan earned a spot on the 2013 D3hoops.com Preseason All-America Team and was named to the All-CC Second Team and the D3hoops.com All-Middle Atlantic Region Third Team last season.
The senior ranked second in the conference with 1.7 blocks per game and his 7.7 boards per game placed him fourth. He averaged 12.9 points with a shooting average of 48 percent. Gyokchyan scored in double-figures in 16 contests last season, including seven with 20-plus points, and finished with a double-double nine different times.
Gyokchyan brings a European style of play to the court, with the ability to score in the paint, from the midrange and from beyond the arc. The one aspect of his game that needs improvement is consistency.
"Hayk has the ability to score in double-figures just about every night," said Robinson. " He just needs to be more consistent. There were times last year where he scored 20 points in one game and didn't score in double-digits the next game."
Joining Gyokchyan in the back court is Jon Salandra. Salandra is an athletic forward with a skill of choosing the right shot that leads to points. The junior led the conference with a 64.0 shooting percentage and averaged 9.8 points per game. He picked up his first postseason award when he was named to All-CC Second Team last year.
Ed Early will rotate in at forward again this year as the sixth man. Early saw a significant amount of playing time last season, as he played in all 31 games with a 15.2 minute average. He scored 170 points and pulled down 121 boards with a 59.6 shooting percentage last season.
Matt Porter is the Diplomats' defensive specialist and one of the main factors for their nation-leading defense throughout the regular season. He averaged 6.6 points per game and shot 70 percent from behind the arc. The junior earned All-CC Second Team accolades last season and looks to be a larger part of the offense this year.
"Matt can handle the ball well and he is our best defensive player off the ball," Robinson said. "He has worked hard this offseason on his shooting and that part of his game has improved."
Senior Brandon Beckford will start at the other guard position. The three-year starter played in all 31 games with a 6.1 point a game average and 39 steals. Beckford is a key cog in the offense and helps others get to the bucket. He is also a good defender and will look to add a few more points on the offensive side of the court.
Tasked with taking over at point guard is senior Max Brewer. Brewer is no stranger to the position, often subbing in for Milligan or running the point when Milligan moved to shooting guard. He knows the offense extremely well and is a great leader on the floor.
Morgan Lee will look to play a larger role this season. The sophomore saw action in 27 contests last year and will be the next guard off the bench. Terrel Phelps returns for his sophomore year and is one of the best three-point shooters on the team.
Rogo is 6-3 point guard with great finishing ability at the rim and good floor leadership skills. Figueroa, a transfer from Division I Northeastern, is the best pure shooter on the team from his guard position and Moune is a 6-7 forward from Douala Cameroon who is extremely fast for a big man and should look to see some minutes this season.
Wilson returns after missing last season due to an illness. The 6-8 center brings a strong presence to the paint and is great at pulling down defensive rebounds. Faison is quick and fast in the lane and has an extensive arsenal of offensive skills while Hines has a great mid-range jumper and is an intelligent basketball player.
Returning to the dance will not be an easy task. In addition to the always-competitive CC schedule, F&M has a difficult non-conference slate as well. The Diplomats open the season with Penn State - Harrisburg and Western Connecticut; both won over 20 games last year. Also appearing on the schedule is No. 16 Transylvania, No. 19 St. Mary's and Eastern Connecticut, who received a significant amount of votes for the D3hoops.com Preseason Top 25.
Robinson will bring an 833-305 record into his 42nd season. The most victorious coach in Division III history will be joined on the sidelines by new assistant coaches Nick Nichay and Fitzgerald Christophe in addition to Brain Murphy and Dan Fahringer.
F&M kicks off the 2012-13 campaign when the Diplomats host the Lancaster Rotary Tournament. The first game is tomorrow against visiting Penn State-Harrisburg at 7:00 p.m.