Head coach Mike McGraw has put lofty expectations for the Hutchinson boys basketball team this year. After winning a combined eight games the past two seasons, he wants the team to double that this season. That's a tall order considering the competition the Tigers face in the Wright County Conference and their section.
“We have 10 games against top-10 preseason ranked opponents,” McGraw said. “It's not as tough as my first year. My first year we played 16 teams out of 26 games that were against top 10 (teams). Last year it was six, so it's tougher than last year and I'm asking us to do more.”
What makes McGraw confident the Tigers can achieve his high goal? The team is returning all but three of last year's top-10 scorers, including Russell Corrigan, Sam Rensch and Zach Kuseske who combined for 619 of the team's 1,395 total points during the regular season.
With a strong core of returning players a year older, McGraw wants something big to happen this season. He wants to change the culture surrounding Hutchinson basketball.
“Hutch has always been known as a football town,” he said. “I always said, 'Football's in the fall, can't we be a basketball town in the winter?' And that's my goal. I am tired of teams from other communities going, 'Oh good, we got Hutch on the schedule, what an easy win.' When they come here or we go there, I want to kick their you-know-what.”
As part of his effort, McGraw challenged players this past offseason to become part of the "15,000 Shot Club." To join the club, players had to take 15,000 shots by themselves during the past six months. He expected 12 players to have completed the goal ahead of the team's first practice earlier this month.
Working on shooting is key for the Tigers because it's the weakest part of their game.
“(I'm) trying to teach the kids the difference between what's a good shot and what's not a good shot,” McGraw said. “Just trying to get them to understand that the best 3-point shots are when the ball comes from inside-out. The worst 3-point shots are when we're just dribbling down the floor and (shoot) off the dribble.”
With so many players returning with varsity experience, McGraw feels he has one his deepest teams in years. Instead of one or two guys who can play off the bench, McGraw says he can go 10 guys deep and not be considered about a significant gap in talent.
Corrigan became the all-time leading scorer in the program's history last year, but his points-per-game production has declined every year. McGraw believes that's because the talent around him has gotten better. With the team's depth this year, McGraw hopes that trend will continue as players step up and chip in on the scoring load.
Billy Marquardt, Kuseske and Corrigan are team captains this year. Marquardt made one of the biggest transformations last year, and Kuseske has had the most improvement to his jumper throughout the offseason.
“I picked (Kuseske) if we need a last-second shot to win the game,” McGraw said. “I did a poll of his teammates already this year, and out of 19, 15 sent their responses back and Zach was the high majority winner of that. His teammates have the same belief in him also.”
Brayden Johnson is tallest player on the team, but McGraw wants him to play more physically. He has good leaping ability and can dribble, pass and shoot, he just needs to develop his all-around game. McGraw see's him as his next project because he believes that if he wants to play basketball at the next level, Johnson has the ability.
According to McGraw, early state basketball publications have called Hutchinson's section the mini state tournament. Another goal for him is for the team to play in a Breakdown in-season tournament. There are three tournaments throughout the season — early December, Christmas break and Martin Luther King Day.
“It means that you're on the radar,” McGraw said. “You're a team that other schools know you can compete.”
A final goal for the team is to host a section playoff game. The last time that happened was in 2010. McGraw hopes to build an exciting team that fills the bleachers in Whalen Gymnasium.
To have all those things happen will be difficult. But setting the bar low does nobody any good.
Hutchinson plays its first game at 5:30 p.m. Thursday when it hosts Norwood Young America. The players have been putting in the work all offseason, so the stage is set for a possible breakout year for Hutch basketball.
“The kids are understanding what it takes to make a good program,” McGraw said. “They know what it takes to make a good football program. I'll use that all the time: 'Coach Rostberg let you get away with that? No, then why should I let you get away with it? Coach Rostberg have you work on Saturdays? Yeah, then why aren't you working for me on Saturday? Do you want to have a crappy basketball program? No, you got to do these things.'”