Considering the weather in recent days, the University of Mary men's basketball team already has a win under its belt.
The Marauders fly south on Thursday for their first two games of the season, both held in Dallas, Texas. Joe Kittell's team faces Henderson State (Ark.) on Friday at 5 p.m. and Southern Arkansas University on Saturday. The two games are part of a conference challenge, meaning the Marauders can play two extra games this season, 28 compared to 26. Both Henderson and SAU are fellow NCAA Division II teams.
The plan worked well three years ago when the Marauders picked up a pair of victories in Texas en route to a 19-win campaign.
"Going on trips like this are fun. It's something different for our guys and it gets us two games against two quality teams," Kittell said.
It's also like-for-like competition. Last season, the Marauders opened the season against the University of Jamestown, which had already played a handful of games and came into Bismarck hot and beat the Marauders. Like U-Mary, Henderson and SAU will be making their 2018 debuts.
"We've done it both ways and there are positives to both," Kittell said. "(Henderson and SAU) are in the exact same position we are. It's a good test right off the bat."
With a young and inexperienced team last season, the Marauders struggled to a 6-21 mark, but they did show promise down the stretch with a late-season win over Minnesota-Crookston and a competitive Northern Sun tournament loss on the road against Southwest Minnesota State.
A promising group of players return and it starts at the point with junior Jaylan White, who played as well as any guard in the NSIC in the second half last winter.
"Whether it was his shooting percentages, which improved dramatically, or his assist-to-turnover ratio, which was one of the best in the country, we couldn't take him off the court," Kittell said of White, who also plays premium perimeter defense. "Ideally, we'll be able to develop some of our other guys so we can manage his minutes a little more, but he's a tough guy to take off the floor."
Bismarck High grad Connor Hellebust made major strides in the second half last season and has the 2-guard spot pinned down.
"Connor's a guy that's only getting better," Kittell said.
The Marauders have a reliable 1-2 punch in the post with 6-foot-9 sophomore Matthew Kreklow and 6-7 senior Tom Kubank. Kreklow averaged 9.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Kreklow made 21 starts.
Kittell landed a gem to round out the starting five for the Marauders in graduate transfer Dennis Austin III, who averaged 12.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last season for NSIC member Upper Iowa.
"He's a proven player in our league," Kittell said of the Minneapolis native. "He's going to really help us."
Kittell expects to play about 10 players consistently.
Sophomores Lucas Mayer of Century and Hazen's Wyatt Carr bring size and athleticism.
Transfers Johnnie Turner (NDSCS) and Richard Brown (Gillette College) both come from winning JUCO programs.
In the backcourt, junior Evan Anderson returns after providing solid minutes last season.
"We're excited about our 10 core guys," Kittell said. "We feel like if they can continue to develop and improve we can be dangerous."
A promising group of local products will get a year to develop as redshirts, ideally. Kade Amundson and Josh Sipes of Century, Cole Gendreau from St. Mary's and Solen's Jayce Archambault are a big part of the future.
"We have a good group of guys. They're working hard and they're committed to what we're doing," Kittell said. "I definitely feel like we have things going in the right direction."