WALLA WALLA - Whitman finished the 2010-11 men's basketball season at 19-8 and made it to the Northwest Conference championship round before falling to nationally No. 1-ranked Whitworth, 74-50.
It was the best season in 20 years for the Missionaries and even featured a heart-stopping regular-season victory over the NCAA Division III powerhouse and NWC rival Pirates from Spokane.
This year could be even better.
Whitman returns four of its top five scorers from that memorable campaign, including leading scorer Brandon Shaw.
So why is fourth-year head coach Eric Bridgeland hesitant to predict another banner season?
Well, there is always the concern of jinxes, but what really has Bridgeland concerned - and excited - is scheduling.
Despite finishing second in the NWC last season, the Missionaries were not one of the 53 schools selected to attend the D-III National Tournament because they did not play enough NCAA schools to be eligible unless they won their conference tournament championship. With that in mind, the Missionaries have loaded their non-conference schedule with powers like Washington University (St. Louis) and U.C. Santa Cruz, who invade Walla Walla next weekend for games at Sherwood Center.
Washington University, which faces the Whits a week from Friday, finished last season at 13-12 overall but is an established program. The Bears won national titles back-to-back in 2007 and 2008 and were runners-up in 2009.
Bridgeland said the match would be a good test for the Missionaries.
"It's a complete measuring stick," Bridgeland said. "WU is a nationally known program that has back-to-back championships, so its exhilarating and exciting and it's a great measuring stick to see where our program is on a national level.
"We're very, very humbled to have them come and play us at Sherwood," he continued. "To have that quality of a team coming in here and to be able to play them on your home floor is a rarity."
The Banana Slugs from Santa Cruz (13-14 in 2010-11), who invade Sherwood the following night, will not be as formidable as WU. But they are a D-III independent, which should still be a step up from the normal competition Whitman previously faced in non-conference matches.
UCSC graduated its top two scorers from 2010-11 but returns senior Brent Jacobs. Jacobs, a 6-foot-5 forward, averaged 8.1 points-per-game and racked up 23 blocks and 30 steals as a junior.
Bridgeland said the Banana Slugs are athletic and will present a challenge with a "helter-skelter" offense.
The Missionaries benefit slightly from scheduling since UCSC face Whitworth, ranked No. 23 by d3hoops.com this season, the previous night in the second game of a three-game road trip through the Northwest.
The Missionaries use a system in which starters are chosen each week by a combination of factors including effort during practice, scored competitions during practice and a ranking system where teammates weigh-in on who should start each week, Bridgeland said. But it safe to assume Shaw (a 6-2 guard) will be making more than a few starts.
The senior averaged 14.3 ppg in 2010-11, played 25.2 minutes per game and should be more of a threat from the outside this season, Bridgeland said.
"It's great to have our leading scorer (Shaw) back," Bridgeland said. "He made some huge plays last year - he can score, he can rebound, he's a great weapon that we've got and we'll use him. He's added a 3-point game that's much more consistent and is really a weapon now, too."
Joining Shaw on the outside will be juniors Ignas Pavilonis and Peter Clark. Pavilonis (6-7) is listed as a forward but led the Missionaries from beyond the arc, making 37.6 percent of his attempts. Clark is another tall wing at 6-4 and made 35.3 percent of 207 3-point attempts.
"Clark and Pavilonis are both elite shooters with range and are very tall," Bridgeland said. "Having both of them out there at the some time can really stretch the defense. They can both go for 6-7 3s in a game."
Bridgeland said their height gave Clark and Pavilonis an advantage when shooting over traditionally shorter guards.
"Absolutely, when you're taller its easy to get your shot off when a guy comes flying at you," he said. "Last year there was a lot of growing and a lot of maturing for both of them, so its good to have two, three years of experience under their belt. Those things are huge."
Whitman will also welcome back redshirt-sophomore LaQuam Thompson (5-11). Thompson sat out last year with an ACL tear, but he might have been the Missionaries' best player, Bridgeland said.
As a freshman, Thompson averaged 12.3 ppg and almost 30 minutes per game. He is another player Bridgeland said will challenge for starts in the backcourt.
The Missionaries look to be strong in the frontcourt as well, with senior David Michaels and redshirt-sophomore Ryan Gilkey returning.
Michaels (6-7, 215 pounds) averaged just shy of 20 minutes per game and 8.6 ppg on 61.9 percent shooting in the post.
"He was the story of our season last year," Bridgeland said. "In the second half of the season he almost averaged a double-double. In the classroom and on the court he really propelled our season last year. He's been the most consistent player in practice and classroom the first two weeks of the season, no doubt about it."
Gilkey should provide a good compliment to Michaels' athleticism. At 6-9, he will be the tallest player on the court by two inches when both WU and UCSC come to town. He averaged 17.9 minutes and 6.4 points per game last season, and he led the Missionaries in rebounding with 5.7 per game.
Bridgeland, who previously coached at NWC opponents Lewis & Clark and Puget Sound, as well as D-I Pepperdine, said he came to Whitman three years ago because of Whitman's commitment to athletics and high academic standards.
Since he arrived in 2008, the Missionaries have improved from 10-15 to last year's 19-8 finish. If this season continues in that trajectory - and with all the talent returning it just might - Bridgeland may be able to add "basketball school" to that list.