COEUR d'ALENE -With no starters back from last year's preseason No. 1 team, the North Idaho College men's basketball team will rely on its youth to challenge the top teams in the Scenic West Athletic Conference.
Petar Joskimovic, a 6-foot-5 wing, who started late in the season last year and Connor White, a 5-10 guard, formerly of Coeur d'Alene High, are the lone remaining pieces from last year's 23-9 squad.
"Both Petar and Connor gave us some minutes off the bench last year," NIC coach Jared Phay said.
Jordan McCloud (6-6) and Lakeland High graduate Joel Underdahl (6-3) redshirted last year and will vie for starting spots for the Cardinals, who open the season Thursday night at home vs. the North Idaho All-Stars.
"They'll be in the mix," said Phay, who is entering his eighth season as coach at NIC. "Our starting lineup changes from day to day."
Also in the mix will be freshman posts Kaj Sherman, a 7-footer from Mercer Island near Seattle, Edrico McGregor, a 6-8 transfer from Meridian Community College in Meridian, Miss., Michael Middlebrooks, a 6-9 freshman and Casey Ward, who graduated from Post Falls High in 2007.
"Kaj is a big space eater in the middle of the key," Phay said. "Endrico is a really strong, athletic post and Michael is a shot blocking post that will be a big rebounder for us."
Ward is the younger brother of Steven Ward a former Post Falls and NIC player, who will take the floor for the North Idaho All-Stars on Thursday.
"He'll kind of be like our Nick Fromm from last year," Phay said. "Casey will be a scrappy post for us."
Phay also added Antoine Hosley, a 6-1 point guard, who transferred from the University of Washington after playing 14 games last season as a walk-on.
"He'll play a bit of the point and off guard," Phay said. "He didn't play significant minutes last year, but wanted to go somewhere and get a fresh start so he can transfer on to another school."
Other guards include Cole Luckett, Keon Lewis and Tyrell Lewis, all from the Seattle area.
"Cole is an athletic wing," Phay said. "His dad (Kenny) played at Idaho in the mid-80s."
Lewis played at Chief Sealth, a team that Phay grew familiar with during NIC's annual Holiday Inn Express Invitational in December at NIC.
"He'll play a lot of the point for us," Phay said. "We got a chance to meet him a few years ago during the holiday tournament and he enjoyed his time here."
Phay added that Tyrell Lewis could play point guard, shooting guard or small forward.
"We've got a lot of freshman, but we've got some potential," Phay said. "But we've also got some work to do. Our returning guys have done a great job of establishing leadership and getting those younger guys on the same page."
Former Coeur d'Alene guard Andrew Baracco will redshirt, as will point guard P.J. Beene and wing Kwame Bates will redshirt.
In order to get through to the NJCAA tournament this season, NIC will have to get past the preseason No. 1 and defending national champion Southern Idaho.
"Southern Idaho is the team to beat," Phay said. "They've got four or five contributors from that team back this year. Salt Lake, Eastern (Utah) and Snow, it will be a battle with us like always. I think we've got a chance. We've got good size and athleticism. By the middle of the year, you can't grow or be more athletic. It's more of a question of how we come together, which I think we've got a chance to do."
NIC will open SWAC play on Jan. 5 at home vs. Snow College.
NIC will also host a Thanksgiving tournament featuring Williston State and Peninsula College.
"Peninsula has a transfer from Wake Forest (J.T. Terrell) that averaged 11 points a game last year," Phay said. "He's already committed to USC. That's something you don't see every day in the Scenic West."
Those expected to play tonight for the North Idaho All-Stars Winston Brooks, Brandon Haas, Scott Stockwell, Steven Ward, Nate Clinton, Cody Smith, Dalton Skaggs and Darin Nagle.