After spending last season practicing with the team but not playing in games, three Southeast Missouri State University newcomers say they can't wait for the 2003-2004 campaign to begin.
And coach Gary Garner apparently can't wait to have forward Dainmon Gonner, forward Reggie Golson and point guard Mike Nelke -- along with two other promising rookies --suiting up for the Indians when it counts.
"I really feel good about our five new players," said Garner, whose squad began practice Saturday. "With those three being able to practice with us last year, I feel like they're already pretty experienced players.
"We have all five starters back, but they will all be pushed by the newcomers. I know the three players we had practice with us last year will compete for starting spots. And the two new players coming in are very talented. Really, I couldn't tell you who our starters are going to be, but I think having that kind of competition in practice is going to be really good for us."
Gonner, Golson and Nelke know one thing -- being able to play in games after spending last season simply practicing is going to be really good for them.
"I'm definitely ready to go," Nelke said. "It was a long year and it really makes your hunger for the game come back."
Said Golson, "I can't wait. I'm ready to get out there."
Gonner, a powerful 6-foot-6, 230-pound junior, is the most heralded of the Indians' newcomers. He averaged 17.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game two years ago at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College to earn all-region honors before enrolling at Southeast for last year's second semester.
"I'm really looking forward to the season," Gonner said. "Practicing with the team helped me learn the system, the players and the coaches, but I'm ready to get in some games."
Garner said that Gonner might be as complete a four man -- power forward -- as there is in the Ohio Valley Conference. Gonner agreed that he is indeed versatile.
"I can dribble, shoot it, rebound, shoot the three, do a lot of things," he said, smiling. "I'm ready to get out there and play."
Golson, a slender and athletic 6-7 junior, played with Gonner at Hutchinson Community College, where he averaged 10.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game two years ago. He was eligible to play for the Indians last season but was bothered by a knee injury and took a medical redshirt after appearing in one game.
"It was tough watching last year, but learning the system and how everybody played was good," said Golson, who is now completely healthy.
Nelke, a 6-foot junior, was ineligible last season under NCAA transfer rules after he spent two years at Valparaiso. He led the Crusaders in 3-point shooting as a freshman -- hitting 47.2 percent -- and started 13 games as a sophomore.
"Things just didn't work out for me there, but I'm glad to be here," Nelke said. "I think sitting out helped me learn the system, and getting to know the players really helped."
Garner has no doubt about the trio's talents.
"Dainmon is a complete basketball player, probably as complete a four man as there is in the league, and he's really a tenacious player. I think he'll give some teams fits," Garner said. "Reggie is a very talented basketball player, very athletic. And Mike is a point guard who can really shoot the basketball."
Garner also expects strong contributions from his other two newcomers, who weren't enrolled at Southeast last year.
Norman Prather, a 6-3 junior guard/forward, played at Mineral Area College the past two season after starring at Caruthersville High School. An exceptional athlete, Prather will be counted on for strong defense and rebounding.
"I take pride in my defense and rebounding," Prather said. "We have a lot of scorers so I can concentrate on doing other things to win."
Terrick Willoughby, a 6-4 freshman guard/forward, was considered one of the top 10 high school prospects in Mississippi. He averaged 18 points per game as a senior in Biloxi last year.
"I just want to come in and contribute, do the things I can do," Willoughby said.
Said Garner, "Norman is the best athlete on the team. He could be our stopper defensively, and we haven't had that. Terrick is a great athlete who can really shoot the basketball."
Even though Southeast went just 11-19 last year, with all five starters returning and the five newcomers joining the mix, the Indians are looking for big things this season.
"We're going to have a nice team if we bond together, and I think we're already bonding," Gonner said.
Added Nelke, "With the talent and depth we have, I think we could have a great year."