All eyes are on Snider.

Crediting the implosion of one program for the rise of another isn’t fair. But after years of the Summit Athletic Conference being projected to be all North Side in the preseason, someone was going to have to take the mantle to start the 2018-19 season. The Snider Panthers have grabbed the so-called brass ring and gladly embrace the responsibility.

After going just 6-16 a year ago, but playing close to teams a lot of the season, head coach Jeremy Rauch feels that his returners, including juniors Dillon Duff, Isaac Farnsworth and Jayshawn Underwood and sophomore Michael Eley were left unsatisfied. According to Rauch, that intensified their offseason effort.

“When our best players are our hardest workers and are most committed to winning, then our ceiling is pretty high,” Rauch said.

There will be a lot of guys vying for time with the ball, especially on the perimeter for the Panthers. Rauch doesn’t know what the look will be 100 percent yet, but is confident that by January he would like an eight or nine player rotation to be firmly in place. He doesn’t mind positional competition as an early foundation for this year’s team however.

“Competition breads success. Nothing is given. For a freshman coming in or a guy from a different school, you are not given anything. If you lettered, if you started, if you averaged so many points, nothing is given. It is a new year and new chance to prove yourself,” Rauch said.

Eley will be a main focus on the perimeter after an outstanding freshman season that saw him averaged 12.4 points while hitting a team best 50 three pointers at a 44 percent success rate. Eley became one of the area’s more elite knock down shooters, even when pressured by some of the best defenders in the SAC. Over the summer, Eley’s game looked expanded as he showed tendencies of getting to the rim well and flashes of playing above it. According to Rauch, Eley will be be “ask good of a basketball player as he wants to be” as he adds dimensions to his game.

Underwood could be one of the guys who provides toughness as a potential point guard role. Airyan Thomas saw limited time a year ago, but will factor into the depth chart on the perimeter. Jordan Moore, a transfer from North Side, has started to settle in with the Panther program. He showed signs of energy and a willingness to get to the basket during the preseason.

Jon Barnes Jr., who joined the team later than most in the preseason, after a highly successful junior season on the football field, will be another piece on the perimeter and one conditioned to success. Preston Barker is a long combo player who will be in the conversation on the wing.

“We just want to focus on the process, we want to focus on getting better. We always are playing ourselves and the best versions of what we can be. At the end of the day, if we can play our highest level, I think we will be pretty hard to beat,” Rauch said.

Adding to the perimeter will be Duff, who is as much of an on court renaissance man as the Panthers have. Duff lead the team in scoring (16.1 points) and rebounding (5.4 per game) while shooting just under 50 percent from the field. He also had the most blocks on the season with 17.

“He is a worker, ask anybody in town whether it is working with Brice Miles or working with us on his game, he is a beast,” Rauch said of Duff. “He is one of those guys who knows he is going to get attention, he knows he is going to have to score inside and outside and the same time, he is not going to get outworked on the court.”

While Duff was planned for much of the preseason to be a big part of the frontcourt, the recent addition of junior Cleevas Craig will likely see the focus shift some. Craig enrolled at Snider officially on Thanksgiving week after starting the school year in Ohio. Last year at Concordia, Craig averaged six points and 5.1 rebounds per game but is capable of scoring at impressive percentage, including a 5-for-5 night with 14 points against this Snider team last season.

Farnsworth, not a typical post, will likely see some time on the interior as well as because of how tenacious his play can be. Sophomore Jermaine Woods has added strength to his body and improved his interior defense.

“We want to make sure that our perimeter defense is really good to negate the inside as much as possible,” Rauch said, before the addition of Craig.

Is Craig a game changer for that interior defense? Time will certainly tell.

Rauch played coy about his talented freshman class, but Jaylen Lattimore and Karson Jenkins could both factor into the Panthers plans. Lattimore is adding size to his frame and could be an inside/outside guy while Jenkins, though small, has arguably the best shooting touch of his class in the city.

WHY #1?

Depth and a high level of it. Having an embarrassment of riches can really go one of two ways, anyone will tell you that. But all coaches will tell you they’d rather have that option than not. The Panthers have a lot of talent to be put together and put on the court, which leads them to have a variety of options for combinations, defensive schemes and offensive output.

Because of that, few programs — if any — are being talked about as much in the preseason as the Panthers.

“I think the target is there and that is something that they welcome. We have some guys who have had that in the past, going through the ranks and it something they embrace.” Rauch said.

WHY NOT HIGHER?

There isn’t a number higher than one. So what could hold Snider back from being at the top of some people’s lists? Until we get to see all of these pieces, new and old, on the court together in a game, some expectations are “in theory.”  People will not have to wait long to see where Snider is. Why? See below.

CRITICAL GAMES

December 27 at East Noble

As mentioned in the preview of #4 East Noble, this could be one of the best games in the area all year and it happens in the first full week as the 1-0 Knights will host Snider for their season opener. Both teams have a ton of talent and, in theory, East Noble should have an advantage in unity as they aren’t trying to work in critical new pieces

That said, you can throw a lot out of the window because of coaching. Rauch against East Noble’s Ryan Eakins will be a fun chess match. This is not the ultimate measuring stick for Snider, but it will be critical for them to start hot.

January 4 at Northrop

Since the East Noble game was used already in our countdown, this game is presented as a second critical game for Snider. There is a chance we will have just seen these two square off during the holiday tournament, but the first game after the new year is often critical for teams to start a stretch run.

Both teams have a lot of fast moving parts that could compliment each other well. Will there be two teams in the SAC that match up as equal as these two?

RELATED STORY: Snider’s Dillon Duff chosen as the FAN VOTE Preseason Player of the Year

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