By Mason Nesbitt
For The Signal
In the 68 days since basketball season opened, the outlook for The Master’s University men’s and women’s teams have remained about as steady as a fourth-year starting point guard.
The women (9-2) enter Golden State Athletic Conference play ranked No. 15 in NAIA Division 1 after starting the year at No. 18. They are young and talented and playing, largely, beyond their years.
TMU’s men’s team (14-1) sits at No. 5 nationally — for the third straight poll — as GSAC play opens Thursday night with a women’s-men’s double-header against Menlo College at TMU starting at 5:30 p.m.
The Mustang men, winners of 13 straight games and the GSAC coaches’ favorite to finish first in conference, have played like one of the nation’s most complete teams. They’re among the NAIA’s elite in defensive rebounds, 3-pointers made and scoring.
They lead the nation in blocked shots, in large part due to 6-foot-10 center Tim Soares and a group of willing, athletic defenders who have locked it down on the defensive end.
The Mustangs have also been willing to share. And that, Soares said, might be the season’s biggest surprise to date.
“I thought there would be a lot of ball hogging,” Soares said of a team with a rotation that goes 10 deep and a Fresno State transfer, Darryl McDowell-White, who comes off the bench . “But everyone is doing a great job of buying into being a team and sharing the ball.”
The Mustangs average 20 assists per game, ninth most in the country. A number of those basket-helpers have been directed to Soares, who leads the team in scoring at 15.9 points a game.
He’s making 64 percent of his shots, the 10th best mark in the nation and one that shows he’s progressed offensively in his sophomore year.
“I’ve grown into it,” Soares said of his role. “It’s kind of expected of me now.”
Soares was quick to credit his teammates. And he’s right: It’s hard to focus on any one Mustang when each rotation player poses a threat.
Swiss-Army-knife guard Lawrence Russell is averaging 15 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
Point guard Hansel Atencia has progressed as a playmaker. His assists per night are up from four to 4.5. He’s still scoring, dropping in a tick over 13 points on average.
Brock Gardner, a 6-7 transfer from NCAA Division 1 Liberty University, has been a consistent scorer and rebounder.
He posted a triple-double in TMU’s biggest non-conference win, a 108-95 victory over No. 17 Montana Western last month.
Arduous tests will abound in the GSAC, where four teams — Master’s, Hope International (ninth), William Jessup (22) and Arizona Christian (23) — are currently ranked in the NAIA’s top 25.
TMU’s opponent Thursday, Menlo, is receiving votes. It’s the first time the Oaks have received votes in the NAIA since 2002, according to the school’s official Twitter page.
Overall, seven of the GSAC’s eight teams have a winning percentage of at least .600. Five are above .800.
Still, Soares believes TMU is ready.
“We want to get it started,” he said. “… We had a good break, then a couple days off and now we’re back to work.”
TMU’s women’s team, picked by coaches to finish third in the GSAC, had an especially long break. The Mustangs beat Evangel University (Missouri) on Dec. 14, went on break and didn’t return to Master’s until Dec. 28.
That left the team six practices before Thursday’s opener against a Menlo team receiving votes in the national poll.
The Mustangs might have departed from school — but they didn’t leave their game. Players spent December days lifting weights and getting shots up.
“A lot of us used that time to get better,” said sophomore Brooke Bailey. “You could tell even when we came back to practice.”
Bailey, undoubtedly, hoped to maintain a shooting stroke that’s been among the nation’s best. Through 11 games, she’s hit 47% of her three-point attempts.
That, maybe, has been the strongest area of the Mustangs’ game. They’re shooting 41 percent from behind the arc as a team, the third-best percentage in the country.
“I’m really not surprised. We have such great shooters on the team,” Bailey said. “Honestly any one of us could go off any night.”
On most nights, it’s been freshman forward Anika Neuman (12.5 points, 6.5 rebounds) or sophomore guard Hannah Forrar, who leads the team at 17 points per game. Forrar is shooting better than 54 pecent from the field and from three.
The sophomore has, however, missed the last three games. She said Wednesday that it was due to a leg injury and that she was planning to play Thursday.
Master’s will need her. Menlo enters the game at 12-2 with two players averaging better than 17 points a game.
The GSAC as a whole is off to a similarly strong start. All eight teams are at least .500. Five teams are better than .800, and Vanguard, the nation’s No. 1 team, has yet to lose.
Can Master’s navigate that minefield of talent and win the program’s first regular-season GSAC title?
“I think we definitely have it in us,” Forrar said.