The South Carolina State men's basketball team knows what it won't be this season, having lost three outstanding scoring guards to graduation after last season.
But the plan is to gain somewhat of an understanding of what this version of the team can be starting with a season-opening, cross-country, 9-day road trip.
The Bulldogs open the season with a flight to Madison, Wisconsin for Friday night's 7 p.m. game against the Badgers of the University of Wisconsin. From there it will be a Sunday, Nov. 12 game (1 p.m.) at Boston College, a Tuesday, Nov. 14 game (7 p.m.) at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. and a Friday, Nov. 17 game (9 p.m.) at AP-ranked No. 21 UCLA in Los Angeles. Wisconsin and UCLA were Elite Eight teams this past March.
The home-opener for the Bulldogs will be Tuesday, Nov. 21, when S.C. State plays host to Central Arkansas inside Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center.
Early games should help Bulldogs fifth-year head coach Murray Garvin have an idea what his team has to work with and what it needs to work on in preparation for the Jan. 3, 2018 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference opener at Bethune-Cookman.
"We're in game week and we're excited about the upcoming season," Garvin said during a Monday press conference this week. "It couldn't be a better opportunity awaiting us, and our focus - like every year - is getting back to the winners circle during the MEAC Tournament."
S.C. State is looking to rebuild this season after the departure of All-MEAC guards Eric Eaves, Ed Stephens and Greg Mortimer. The graduated trio averaged a combined 37 points per game for the Bulldogs a season ago.
"We knew we were graduating more than 3,000 points off of our team last season," Garvin said.
S.C. State will also be without starting forward Tashombe Riley, an Orangeburg-Wilkinson product who will miss most, if not the entire season due to an off-season knee injury. Riley was the second-leading scorer last season, averaging 11.4 points per game, while leading the Bulldogs in rebounding with 5.2 boards per game.
"Tashombe had worked his butt off to be in the best condition both physically and mentally, and we were really looking forward to a great year for him, but it's unfortunate that he got hurt," Garvin said. "Tashombe was probably going to be our third 1,000-point scorer in three years time, and with him being just about 70 points away from that mark, that leaves us with about 4,000 points out of our lineup from last year.
"He has been released to start his physical rehab now. There is a possibility that he might put on a Bulldogs uniform and play later in the season, but the early prognosis was he would be out for the year. I would really like for Tashombe to have a full senior season when he is healthy again."
Riley has been at every Bulldogs practice, regularly starting at 5 a.m., to help coach and teach younger players, and to remain a part of what the program is doing.
"This year, Tashombe's leadership is even more important for us from the sideline, and I've talked with him about that," Garvin said. "The guys have responded better than I thought they would.
"Our young guys are really eager for the opportunity (to perform). Our motto is 'All Of Us.' I've been asked who is going to step up in absence of Tashombe, and the first thing that popped into my head was all of us. Everyone has got to step up for this to be a successful year. Right now, I really love this basketball team."
With no proven superstar on the roster, every player must show up and compete and hold their own.
Among six newcomers to the Bulldogs program, five are transfers and one is a true freshman. One transfer stands out right away. Alex Taylor is a 6-foot-9, 285-pound forward from Moncks Corner who played tight end and offensive line for Appalachian State's football team a year ago.
"Early in the fall, I thought we were still going to play uptempo basketball all the time," Garvin said. "But, then the big fella (Taylor) walks in and we find out he is immediately eligible, so that changed some things.
"When we get Alex up the court and throw it in to him, he's got a very high chance of scoring. He can impact our season, as can Ozante Fields (6-7, 220), a returning sophomore from right here in Denmark, South Carolina. He has been phenomenal this fall. (Fellow sophomore forwards) Damani Applewhite (6-8, 200) and David Bottenberg (6-8, 220), we've got a host of young, big men who can help our program."
Ty Solomon is a fourth-year player, a redshirt senior point guard who will help the Bulldogs get their offense started this season.
"Ty is a coach on the court," Garvin said. "I told him my goal is to be like (former Bulls and Lakers championship coach) Phil Jackson, just sit there with my legs crossed and let him run the floor and run the team.
"He has been good as gold this fall. He is the only holdover from the S.C. State team that played for the MEAC Championship. He has been there and he understands what we need."
An exhibition loss at Coastal Carolina got the Bulldogs rolling toward the season. Garvin hopes that it will help his team have a better sense of what it is capable of this season, and what possible strengths and weaknesses might be, going forward.
"Playing Coastal was beneficial, because it got us prepared to play higher-level basketball teams," Garvin said. "Coach (Cliff) Ellis has done well recruiting for Coastal's transition to the Sun Belt, getting long, tall athletic guys. But, we played really well in spurts.
"I just really look forward to our entire group stepping up and playing well this Friday in the Kohl Center against the Wisconsin Badgers. We are going to have every opportunity to have success and to grow together as a team on this opening road trip."
Other non-conference games on the schedule include hosting Morris College on Nov. 28, playing at N.C. State on Dec. 2, playing host to Charleston Southern on Dec. 12, playing at College of Charleston on Dec. 19 and playing at Central Florida on Dec. 21.
Unlike in recent seasons, MEAC play won't begin until the new calendar year. Two early road games in conference play, including the first at Bethune-Cookman, will be followed by a four-game homestand from Jan. 13-Jan. 22.
The Bulldogs will have 8 of their 16 MEAC games at home, including the final one on March 1 against Savannah State. S.C. State was picked to finish 7th in the MEAC in a conference-wide preseason poll.