Hanover coach Jon Miller tosses the ball to freshman Eddy Wagner (above) during practice on Wednesday. Junior Desmond Marks throws down a dunk (below) during a halfcourt drill. The Panthers open the season on Monday at home against Spalding (Ky.). (Staff photos by David Campbell)
Hanover coach Jon Miller tosses the ball to freshman Eddy Wagner (above) during practice on Wednesday. Junior Desmond Marks throws down a dunk (below) during a halfcourt drill. The Panthers open the season on Monday at home against Spalding (Ky.). (Staff photos by David Campbell)
Over the past four seasons, no Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference men's basketball program has won more games than Hanover College. The Panthers have notched 52 league wins over that stretch and 68 overall.

But all of those wins still have not earned Hanover the ultimate prize: A conference championship. Despite averaging 13 wins a season, the Panthers have fallen short in both the regular season and tournament every year.

It's a situation Hanover coach Jon Miller hopes to rectify this season. With a veteran ballclub and talent at every position, the sixth-year coach is expecting big things in 2013-14.

"Our group has always expected to do pretty well. This year, there are probably more expectations on paper," said Miller. "We lost some really good players to graduation but we return some really good guys. When you look at the top line of teams with us, Rose-Hulman and Transylvania, we probably on paper lost less than they did.

"Our guys are really embracing the expectations that are out there but if you want to end up there, there are certain things you have to do. Certain hard things. And that's what we're working toward."

It's not that Hanover hasn't had success over that span. Two years ago the Panthers earned an at-large berth to the NCAA Division III Tournament and a year ago Hanover battled league champion Rose-Hulman down to the wire before falling in the HCAC tournament championship game.

But getting over the hump to win a championship has been Hanover's biggest problem.

This year the Panthers are picked to finish second in the HCAC in a preseason vote by the league's coaches. However, Hanover tallied just one point less in the voting than league favorite Rose-Hulman and the Panthers actually received more first-place votes (4) than the Engineers (3).

But Miller dismisses preseason polls with a laugh.

"I would love to look at that poll again in February," Miller said. "Our conference is so close that one or two losses could be the difference between first and seventh place. I think we're one of the top teams but you still have to play and get better each time out."

Part of what makes Miller confident this season is the core of his returning players. Tim Bass, a 5-foot-5 junior guard from Indianapolis North Central, led the team in scoring at 13.2 points per game last season and also averaged just under five assists a game while earning All-HCAC honors.

While Bass has been a sparkplug, he has also had his share of on-court incidents over the past two years with untimely technical fouls and bursts of emotion.

But as he has gotten older Bass has done a better job of reining in his emotions. As a result, Miller expects Bass to be a team leader this season.

"Tim's a very talented player. In two years he's done a lot of good things for us and I think he's continuing to mature as a player both on and off the court," Miller said. "You're not going to find a more competitive player than Tim. He needs to learn and to continue working on the best way to channel those competitive juice. But I've always said, give me a guy that I have to pull back a little than a guy that I have to light a fire under. Generally with Tim, you don't have to light a fire under him."

Complimenting Bass will be a talented frontcourt that while not tall, is very strong. Desmond Marks, a 6-foot-5 junior from Bloomington South, shrugged off injury a year ago to average 7.9 points and 5.4 rebounds a game. Jacob Rieger, a 6-foot-4 senior from Cold Springs, Ky., is back after sitting out his junior season and has been named a player to watch by the league. He is the squad's lone senior.

Also joining this team is a talented freshman class, headed by V.J. Billups. The 6-foot-3 swingman graduated from Jeffersonville High School two years ago but has all four years of eligibility left and could be one of the best freshmen in the conference.

The task of bringing this talent together rests with Miller, who relishes the challenge of making it all work.

"Tim Bass might be the quickest player in the country. We also this year are more physical in the post. When you have a quick point guard, you like to get it down the floor as quick as possible. When you're physical in the post, you're talking about wanting to set something up for those guys in the post," Miller said. "That's been kind of a fun thing. We're still a work in progress. We're still trying to find out how you fit that all together ... We've got some interesting pieces. We just have to find the best way to get them to operate together."

Hanover doesn't have much time to figure out what it wants to do. The Panthers open the season on Monday against Spalding (Ky.) and host Wabash two days later. After a home game against Blackburn (Ill.) on Nov. 24 and a trip to Ohio Wesleyan on Nov. 30, Hanover jumps right into conference play.

Those early HCAC games are what worries Miller most. Hanover faces Franklin, Anderson and Earlham over a span of 10 days.

"I think if you talk to most of the coaches in our league they'll all tell you that they're not a big fan of those early December league games. But in a 10-team conference we don't have much choice," Miller said. "A lot of times you're still trying to figure out what you want to do in December and those games come up so quick. And a loss there doesn't mean any less than a loss in February. They could be the difference in the season."

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HANOVER COLLEGE PANTHERS

MEN'S BASKETBALL

2013-14 Schedule

(Home games in CAPS)

Date Opponent Time

Nov. 18 SPALDING (Ky.) 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 20 WABASH 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 24 BLACKBURN (Ill.) 3 p.m.

Nov. 30 at Ohio Wesleyan 3 p.m.

Dec. 4 FRANKLIN* 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 7 at Anderson* 4 p.m.

Dec. 14 EARLHAM* 3 p.m.

Dec. 17 at Thomas More (Ky.) 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 29 vs. Illinois College# 5 p.m.

Dec. 30 at Wooster (Ohio) 7 p.m.

Jan. 4 DEFIANCE (Ohio)* 3 p.m.

Jan. 8 at Transylvania (Ky.)* 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 11 at Bluffton (Ohio)* 3 p.m.

Jan. 15 at Mt. St. Joseph (Ohio)* 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 18 MANCHESTER* 3 p.m.

Jan. 22 ROSE-HULMAN* 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 25 at Defiance (Ohio)* 3 p.m.

Jan. 29 MT. ST. JOSEPH (Ohio)* 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 1 BLUFFTON (Ohio)* 4 p.m.

Feb. 5 at Franklin* 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 8 at Earlham* 4 p.m.

Feb. 12 at Rose-Hulman* 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 15 ANDERSON* 4 p.m.

Feb. 19 TRANSYLVANIA (Ky.)* 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 22 at Manchester* 3 p.m.

Feb. 25 HCAC Tournament TBA

#- at Wooster

*- Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference game