The Bismarck boys basketball team isn't going to catch anyone by surprise.
With five state titles and eight state championship game appearances in the last dozen seasons, the Demons have become a maroon-clad target.
Three starters and a vital reserve return from the runner-up team that missed a state title by seven points last winter. That group includes first-team all-stater Dexter Werner.
That augurs well for the Demons, who play host to Minot in their opener Thursday night.
But BHS coach Steve Miller isn't in the habit of making assumptions. He says the Demons have a lot of rebuilding to do before they become tournament-ready.
Bismarck's foundation is sturdy. Werner, a 6-5½ senior who averaged 19.2 points and 9.4 rebounds last season, anchors the team. "That's a place to start. He brings a different skill set. He's going to command more than one defender," Miller said.
The other returning starters are 6-2 guard Devin Schirado and 6-1 senior guard Jaxon Fitterer.
"Schirado is a good offensive player. We need to get him to be a little more consistent on the defensive end," Miller said. "I would say the same for Fitterer. Both those guys give us some perimeter scoring."
Schirado averaged 9.1 points and 3.1 assists, and sank 55 3-pointers last winter. Fitterer averaged 9.2 points and nailed 48 3-pointers.
The only other returnee who played a significant role at tournament time is Ben Jolliffe. Jolliffe, a 6-2 junior, averaged
3.5 points after establishing himself in the second half of the season.
"We need a big year out of Jolliffe on both ends of the floor," Miller said.
Tyler Richter and Dalton Dewald, both holdovers from last year, will have the opportunity to earn significant playing time in the early going. Dewald, a 5-8 senior, picked up over 200 minutes of action last season, averaging 1.6 points. Richter, a 6-foot senior, played 50 minutes in 13 games.
"They're both competitive kids, and they're going to get some open looks because the other three are going to command so much attention," Miller said. "They'll have the opportunity to contribute offensively."
Miller said the graduation of 6-3 second-team all-stater DeWayne Liggins altered the personality of the team.
"Obviously we don't have anyone as explosive as that," Miller said. "... I don't know if we'll get as many easy baskets as we did last year off transition. DeWayne was so good at getting to the basket."
The coach said the Demons will also miss the versatility that Liggins gave the team.
"We'll have about the same size we did last year, but we'll be more traditional by position," Miller said. "We were able to move DeWayne around so much last year."
With Werner in the frontcourt and Fitterer and Schirado on the perimeter, Miller expects BHS to have at least the semblance of a balanced attack in the early going.
"Hopefully we can score around the basket, and we should be able to get some perimeter scoring. That gives us a start toward some offensive balance. ... And we should have some ballhandling stabilty there, too," Miller said.
The team's depth depends largely on the development of players who had little nor no varsity playing time last season. "We're going to have to find out how our JV players from last year make the transition to the varsity," Miller said. "We've got some juniors - if they come through - who could give us some pretty good depth."
Among the players who will be trying to make the jump into the rotation are James Iron Eyes, Taylor Schafer, Josh Seibel, Tyler Clairmont, Troy Hausauer, Jamie Thorson and Justin Thorson. Iron Eyes is a 5-10 sophomore, Schafer is a 6-2 sophomore, Seibel is a 5-10 junior, Clairmont is a
6-4 junior, and Hausauer is a 6-2 junior. The Thorsons are 6-foot juniors.
"We've got some sorting to do. Outside of those top three guys, there isn't much varsity playing time except for Jolliffe," Miller said.
The Demons have played in the last two state basketball championship games, and several of the basketball players contributed to this fall's state football title. Miller said there is definitely value - albeit hard to quantify - in a winning attitude.
"Any time you have multi-sport kids it helps," Miller said. "The more times kids are in pressure situations, the
easier it is for them to handle pressure situations in other sports."
Although West Region coaches expect Bismarck to make a run at the regional championship, Miller defers to Mandan.
"They've got the best collection of athletes. ... They have the most depth from one to 10 ... and they've got the most varsity experience," Miller said.