SALISBURY, Md. - The Salisbury University men's basketball team is looking to build upon a successful 2012-13 campaign that saw the maroon and gold win its most games since the 1996-97 team that was coached by Salisbury Hall of Famer Ward Lambert. Under the direction of Head Coach Josh Merkel, this year's Sea Gull team looks to put together the first back-to-back winning seasons since the 2000-01 edition did so.
The Sea Gulls finished last season 19-8 and went 9-3 in Capital Athletic Conference play. Salisbury advanced to the CAC semifinals, before falling to Wesley College, 73-66, to end the season.
This year's team features several returning players, and a strong freshman class who will have the opportunity to contribute immediately.
Senior Tim Harwood is the top returning player, having averaged 13.0 points per game last season, good for second on the team. Harwood was first on the team with 62 three-pointers made and second on the team with 29.2 minutes per game. His shooting percentage from the free-throw line at 89.9 percent was good for sixth best in the country. Tim played for his father Dan Harwood at Magruder High School.
"Tim is one of the best shooters I have ever coached and he plays with a great deal of confidence," Merkel said. "He has a high basketball IQ and is a strong competitor. We are expecting Tim to make others around him even better this season and to get to the free-throw line more where he is automatic."
Junior Chris Viqueira is second-leading returning scorer for the Sea Gulls, averaging 7.7 points per contest last season. Also returning for the Sea Gulls is senior Brandyn Wilkerson and junior Conor Strickland.
"Brandyn Wilkerson is someone who is going to be a huge contributor for us this season. He is a strong and tough guard with great shooting range," Merkel said about the senior from Mount Airy, Md. "Conor worked extremely hard this offseason and his ability to find the open man is a great strength that will help our team."
"The first thing that comes to mind is that they are young men of character that we can trust," Merkel said about his incoming recruiting class. "They love to work and compete on a daily basis. Justin, like all Magruder High School players, is extremely well coached and used to winning. Witmer is athletic and really shoots it. Gordon Jeter is long, athletic, and also comes from a high school program that has a culture of winning. Porter is extremely fast and a fierce competitor."
Merkel is tasked with replacing his top four rebounders from a season ago, with Harwood being the team's top returning rebounder. Merkel has a group of returning players that are expected to anchor the low post for the Sea Gulls.
"We have a number of taller guys that will have an opportunity to step up and rebound the basketball," Merkel said. "We need to be tougher, anticipate and want the ball every time the shot goes up."
"Each of those guys brings something different to the table – shooting, toughness, post defense, and perimeter skills," Merkel said about his sophomores. "The challenge is to bring that energy and consistency on a daily basis. Luke came on strong late last year and has great ability to shoot and dribble for a bigger guy. Jacoy has a great motor. Charlie is a tall shooter working hard to improve. Ryan is moving well and playing great post defense. Kyle is a smart player that defends with toughness."
Junior Derrick Miller rounds out the group of returning frontcourt players for Salisbury.
"We expect Derrick to play a larger role for us in his third season with the program," the coach said about Miller. "He is our hardest worker, rebounds well, and plays hard every second he is on the floor."
"Dominic brings a veteran presence and is a vocal leader with a high basketball IQ," Merkel said about the lone senior in the frontcourt. "(Milburn) has mentored our younger guys in ways they can be successful on the court. Diara is a strong and athletic player with strong hands and a great knack for rebounding."
Merkel's team once again faces a tough schedule, both in and out of conference play. On the docket for this season are two schools that made it to the Elite 8 last season – Virginia Wesleyan College and St. Mary's College of Maryland, with the Seahawks advancing to the Final Four.
"We will always schedule as aggressively as we can to prepare ourselves for one of the best conferences in all of Division III," Merkel said about his non-conference schedule. "We are excited about the opportunity to play and challenge ourselves against the best competition we can find."
St. Mary's College returns a strong team, as does Route 13-rival Wesley College, the two teams that finished above the Sea Gulls in the 2012-13 CAC standings. The Sea Gulls have improved in each of Merkel's two seasons and he knows what needs to be done to take the program to the next level.
"Our goal is to improve and bring out the best in each other every day," Merkel said. "When we do those things with passion and consistency, the results will take care of themselves. We know that it will take our best preparation and effort to beat the teams in the CAC."
The previous two seasons Salisbury has knocked off then-No. 1 Virginia Wesleyan and will look to take down the Marlins for the third straight season. Virginia Wesleyan travels to the Maggs Physical Activities Center on Nov. 19, which will be the second contest of the season for the Sea Gulls.
"We have had great student support for our home games and we hope to build on the support from our friends and classmates at Salisbury University," Merkel said about the atmosphere inside the Maggs Physical Activities Center.
Salisbury opens its season against Washington (Md.) College on Friday, Nov. 15, in Chestertown, Md. The Sea Gulls begin their home schedule the following Tuesday, Nov. 19, hosting preseason No. 25 Virginia Wesleyan. Both contests are scheduled to tip off at 7:30 p.m.