The Master’s University’s Evan Jenkins (1) keeps an eye on UCLA’s Bryce Alford (20) during an exhibition game at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles on Nov. 1. Katharine Lotze/Signal
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The expectations this year for The Master’s University men’s basketball team continue to rise as shots continue to fall.

When the season began, first-year coach Kelvin Starr wasn’t sure his squad could win a Golden State Athletic Conference title.

But, after averaging 104 points per game through four contests, he’s convinced it’s an attainable goal for a Mustangs team unranked nationally and picked to finish seventh in conference.

PHOTOS: TMU hoops travels to UCLA

“If we put it all together, I think we’re that good,” Starr said. “That’s a long way away, but that’s our goal: to win the GSAC and get back to the NAIA national tournament.”

The Mustangs (4-0) haven’t made the national tournament since 2000 and are coming off their worst season in at least that long.

The Master’s University’s Hansel Atencia (0) drives toward the basket as UCLA’s Lonzo Ball (2) keeps up during an exhibition game at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles on Nov. 1. Katharine Lotze/Signal
The Master’s University’s Hansel Atencia (0) drives toward the basket as UCLA’s Lonzo Ball (2) keeps up during an exhibition game at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles on Nov. 1. Katharine Lotze/Signal

TMU went 4-20 overall and 1-15 in the GSAC, leading to the dismissal of Ken Sugarman as head coach after two seasons.

Starr, who won a GSAC title and conference Coach of the Year award in five seasons at San Diego Christian last decade, brings a hard-nosed basketball philosophy to TMU.

Since players arrived on campus this fall, Starr has preached defense.

But it’s a work in process.

The Mustangs have allowed 81.5 points per game so far, only half a point below last year’s mark.

“I think our defense can be great,” said TMU senior guard Reid Shackelford. “When we relax and get complacent sometimes, we give up some weaknesses. If we get more consistent, I don’t see us having any really big weakness.”

Shackelford, the team’s leading scorer last year, has again led the offense.

The 5-foot-11 combo guard is averaging 22.8 points per game, highlighted by a 51-point outburst against Embry-Riddle Aeronautical of Arizona on Nov. 11.

His 10 3-pointers were a program single-game record, propelling TMU to a record 21 treys as a team.

Community college transfer Lawrence Russell had two of them as part of 18 points. He’s stuffed the stat sheet on a nightly basis, averaging 18 points, seven rebounds and nearly five assists.

The Mustangs have five players averaging double digit points.

“We have so many different scorers,” Shackelford said. “Everybody can score. If one guy doesn’t get 25, another guy will.”

TMU has had to mesh Shackelford and six other returners with eight newcomers, something that hasn’t been a problem, Starr said.

Russell agreed.

“We haven’t had any locker-room disputes or anything like that,” he said. “We all know what our roles are, and we’re trying to fill them and build as we go.”

The building, at least for the future, starts with the team’s young bigs.

Highly-touted, 6-10 freshman Tim Soares and 6-7 frosh Travis Yenor are progressing, Starr said.

The team returns 6-9 sophomore Kaleb Anderson, who started 23 games as a freshman, averaging seven points and roughly five rebounds.

Anderson, certainly, is battle-tested, having survived a season in the always-tough GSAC.

Shackelford been through the teeth of conference play three times now.

Does this Mustangs team have what it takes to win a GSAC title?

“Yeah, that’s for sure realistic,” Shackelford said.

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Mason Nesbitt
Mason Nesbitt is The Santa Clarita Valley Signal's Sports Editor.
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