Howard Payne opens with pair of Division I opponents

Coming off a second straight season without a postseason appearance, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets are targeting their first American Southwest Conference tournament berth since the 2014-15 campaign.

The road back to the postseason won’t be easy, however, as the Yellow Jackets (12-12, 8-8 last year), under the guidance of head coach Troy Drummond, are picked to finish tied with McMurry for fifth place in the West Division standings.

“Last year was a disappointment missing out on the conference tournament,” Drummond said. “Every year that’s our goal. This year, adding the fact that the first place team in the West hosts, we’d do love to do that. We haven’t hosted since 2006 and that was a 20-win season. But the disappointment from last year is constantly motivating our guys, and our returnees are constantly talking about what it takes to make the tournament.”

The Yellow Jackets tip off the season with back-to-back games against NCAA Division I programs Abilene Christian at 7 p.m. Thursday and Stephen F. Austin at 4 p.m. Saturday. Dates with Trinity, Rhodes College and Millsaps College follow ahead of the ASC opener at UT-Dallas on Nov. 30.

“I just want to see us gel, see how they come together and who plays well and who can step out of their comfort zones and accept their roles,” Drummond said of the early goals. “Everyone comes out of high school as a starter and now you have to be one of 15. Are kids willing to accept that role?”

Drummond feels the Yellow Jackets’ greatest strength is their ability to shoot from long range.

“We’re pretty good outside shooters and we get to the paint pretty well,” he said. “Our weaknesses are going to be defense and rebounding because we’re going to be a lot smaller than everybody else. We’re go to have to try harder on the defensive end and block out and rebound.”

Key returnees for the Yellow Jackets include senior guards Khyce Randall and Rickey Guillory, as well as sophomore guard De’Marcus Hurd, and junior forward Thomas Bingham.

“We’ve got a lot of leadership with Rickey and Khyce being seniors,” Drummond said. “They’ve been strong leaders throughout their years in the program and they’ve done a great job in the preseason so far.

“DeMarcus came to us as a scorer but had to move to point guard to help out after injuries. That’s made him a better all around player because not only does he shoot, but he can distribute the ball. And Bingham is 6-8, long and will make a lot of players have to shoot over him.”

Newcomers to watch include freshman forward Colton Otts, junior guard Darren Farmer and freshman guard Drake Cooper.

“Colton is about 6-5, 6-6, a strong kid but someone that’s having to learn our program and what we’re needing from him,” Drummond said. “He’s going to come along and do real well for us.

“Farmer is someone who is long defensively and someone we’re going to be need to step up. And Drake is a good athlete, very aggressive and that’s what we really like about him.”

As for the ASC race, Drummond expects it to be as competitive as ever.

“LeTourneau just beat Northwestern State, a Division I team, on Sunday, so you know the conference is going to be strong,” Drummond said. “It’s one of the toughest conferences in Division III.

“We’ve got Mary Hardin-Baylor, Concordia, Sul Ross and defending West champion Hardin-Simmons on our side. Night in and night out it’s going to be a challenge. You can’t take any days off.”

Regarding what it will take for the Yellow Jackets to finish in the top four in the West and return to the postseason, Drummond said, “It comes down to defense and rebounding. I feel like we can win, make the conference tournament and win it, but at the same time we can’t take any days off — no practices off, no games off. They have to bring their A game every single time in this conference.”