Two months and 15 games into the 2017-18 season, the Iowa Central men are right where they want to be.
Maybe some outside of the program didn’t believe a 13-2 start was possible. And maybe others inside of it weren’t 100 percent sure with just two sophomores returning.
Behind the play of All-American candidate Tray Croft, the Tritons are ranked eighth in the nation — one spot ahead of ICCAC rival and defending national champion Southwestern.
Croft, who set a new single-season scoring record last year, is once again among the top scorers in the nation this season. However, a year older, the Alabama native has developed his all-around game to lead Iowa Central.
“I’m really happy with my defense this year,” Croft said. “And my rebounding and assists (have improved).”
Of course, his No. 1 job on the Tritons is to score, which Croft has done at a clip of 23.6 points per game. His average ranks seventh, with his total points scored (354) placing him second.
Croft also ranks in the Top-50 in eight other categories. He is second with 47 made 3-pointers on 120 attempts, fourth with a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, fourth in free throws (93-108), 13th in field goals (107-222), 17th in defensive rebounds (85), 21st in assists (68), 43rd in total rebounds (106) and 52nd in steals (25).
Robert Hawkins is the only other sophomore on the roster, as he was part of an 11-21 season a year ago.
Veteran Iowa Central head coach Dennis Pilcher, who owns 865 career wins, went out and found several gems to pair alongside Croft and Hawkins including Dallas Bailey, Royshawn Webb, Thomas Akamarmoi, Collin Shannon and Kemryn Jenkins.
Bailey, a 6-5 forward out of Denver, is averaging 12.4 points and almost six rebounds per game. He recorded a triple-double in a win over Dakota County with 11 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
Webb is averaging almost nine points on 55 percent shooting from the floor. The freshman out of Cedar Rapids is also grabbing almost seven rebounds per game.
Shannon, a freshman from Ankeny, is averaging 5.5 points, three rebounds and has 58 assists with just 18 turnovers.
“After a couple of practices, I felt like I have been playing with (my teammates) for a year already,” Croft said. “This year, we have been hanging out more off the court to develop a better bond on the court, even if that means being in the dorms playing on our video game systems.”
Australia’s Akamarmoi is posting almost 11 points per game with two rebounds. He is shooting 53 percent from the field, including 37 percent from the 3-point line.
Jenkins has provided a spark off the bench, shooting 45 percent from the 3-point line and averaging over nine points a night. Five different Triton players have led the team in scoring, with Croft doing it 10 times.
For Croft, the role of leader was thrust upon him in the preseason, and he has since embraced it.
“A lot of my teammates look up to me and my coaches expect more out of me this year,” he said. “I set the tone on the court. If I’m not having a good game, my team is not having a good game.”
Both of Iowa Central’s losses to date came to NJCAA Div. I teams in Marshalltown (86-72) and Moberly (102-80) either on the road or at a neutral site. With the conference season looming, Croft knows the pressure to continue performing well will only heat up.
“Every other team is going to try to knock us off the top,” he said. “But we are not going to let them.”
Iowa Central is ranked for the first time since the final poll in the 2011-12 season, the same year they made the NJCAA National Tournament. They have qualified for nationals twice in program history.
The Tritons hit the floor again on Sunday, Jan. 7 when they host Waldorf JV at Hodges Fieldhouse. The ICCAC season will feature two key battles right from the start, as Iowa Central hosts Kirkwood on Saturday, Jan. 13 and Southwestern the following Wednesday night.
Des Moines Area, which is ranked 17th, hosts the Tritons on Wednesday, Jan. 31. Iowa Central will play all three a second time the following month.
As for his future after the end of this season, Croft said he “has a couple of schools in mind” and hopes to make a decision early in January.