WILLIAMSBURG — North Carolina State won 22 games last season, two coming in the NCAA tournament. The Wolfpack is picked eighth in the tough-as-ever ACC and returns one of the top point guards in the nation — one Anthony “Cat” Barber from Hampton High.
It’s yet another tough opener for William and Mary, which a year ago began its season at No. 7 Florida. And which in recent years has opened at Virginia, Connecticut, Penn State and Georgetown.
Yet unlike a decade ago, the Tribe isn’t going just to keep the score respectable. This is a program that in the last six seasons has won at Maryland, Wake Forest and Rutgers. So Friday night in Raleigh, N.C., W&M is thinking victory.
“I think it’s changed for us in the last 10 years or so,” Tribe coach Tony Shaver said. “We play these games to win now. Ten, 11, 12 years ago, we probably didn’t have a great shot to win at N.C. State. I think our guys have a very different outlook about these games, which is exciting.
“We understand we’ll have to play really, really well to win it. But our guys have proven they can do that, and that’s our mind-set.”
Shaver believes this season’s non-conference schedule is the toughest William and Mary has ever faced, and he might be right. Four of the Tribe’s first eight opponents — N.C. State, Dayton, Hampton and Virginia — made the NCAA tournament last season.
Old Dominion was one of the last four out of the NCAA and was a No. 1 seed in the National Invitation Tournament. Central Michigan won 23 games and made the NIT. High Point is picked to win the Big South this year.
But it all starts with the Wolfpack, which finished 22-14 last season and made it to the Sweet 16. State lost its top two scorers, but Barber is a two-year starter who isn’t called “Cat” because he likes fish.
“He’s a terrific player,” Shaver said. “He’ll be one of the quickest players I’ve ever coached against with the ball. It’s a great task for us. But I think in all these long weeks and months in the offseason for our players, I think it gives them something to shoot for.”
Though the Tribe loses its all-time leading scorer in guard Marcus Thornton, it returns four starters and four key reserves. Also in the mix will be guard David Cohn, a transfer from Colorado State, where he started five games in 2013-14.
“I think it’s a sign of growth in our program that we lose arguably the best player to ever play here and we still have such high expectations,” said Shaver, whose team is picked fourth in a competitive Colonial Athletic Association. “Now, we’ve got to prove we can play.
“We have four starters and some quality depth back. But we have to see how we can play in crucial situations without (Thornton).”
Also opening Friday night is Old Dominion, which is home to Niagara in the “campus round” portion of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off. The Purple Eagles went 8-22 last season.
On the women’s side, ODU is at Richmond, William and Mary is at Mount St. Mary’s, and Hampton is at Iowa State.
Johnson can be reached at 757-247-4649.