DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) Drake's Mark Phelps has, at least in theory, what every coach in the country wants: five returning starters.
In reality, Phelps enters his fifth season with the Bulldogs trying to replace perhaps the best starter he had.
Drake suffered a major blow in the offseason when Rayvonte Rice, a guard who averaged nearly 17 points a game in 2011-12, announced he was transferring.
Rice eventually landed at Illinois, and Phelps will attempt to replace him with more varied production from five players with starting experience coming back and the eight new guys. The Bulldogs, who are 62-69 in four seasons under Phelps after winning the Missouri Valley in 2007-08, open at Detroit on Nov. 17.
"I see a team that overall is deeper than we've had a while. A better passing team, a better scoring team," Phelps said.
Though the Bulldogs lost a star in Rice, they bring back a familiar face in center Seth VanDeest. VanDeest started during his first two years on campus before injuries to both of his shoulders forced him to redshirt a year ago. He's back and not as notoriously rail-thin as he was before he got hurt.
VanDeest, who is 6-foot-11, has bulked up 30 pounds to 265. He'll be counted on to anchor the post while allowing 6-foot-8 Jordan Clarke to move back to a more suitable role at power forward.
"I feel stronger than ever," VanDeest said. "My first two years, it was always a struggle hanging in there with the bigger, stronger guys in the Valley. Now that I have that extra weight it will definitely help with positioning, rebounding and things like that."
Rice and forward Ben Simons formed one of the Valley's top scoring duos in 2011-12, helping Drake finish a respectable 18-16 and 9-9 in league play.
Simons could push Creighton's Doug McDermott for the Valley scoring title as a senior. Simons averaged 16.4 points a game, third-best among returning league players, and Rice's departure will likely mean more shots and more attention for the versatile forward.
"Something that I would like to improve on is maybe my playmaking-type role," Simons said. "Teams will be keying on me, so I can make plays for my teammates and get them easy buckets."
The backcourt isn't nearly as settled as the frontcourt. That's where many of Drake's eight newcomers could see action.
Former Utah shooting guard Chris Hines will play his final season with the Bulldogs after playing 30 minutes and hitting a team-high 66 3-pointers for the Utes a year ago.
Junior-college guard Gary Ricks, Jr., and Richard Carter could also work their way into a rotation that will include redshirt sophomore Karl Madison.
"We have guys in our program that can score. Ben Simons is going to be one of the better scorers in our league. You reintroduce a bigger, stronger, better Seth VanDeest," Phelps said. "You look at Chris Hinds, a fifth-year senior, a transfer from the Pac-12. A guy who scored 10 points a game last year in the Pac-12. That's one of the easier (transitions) you can make."
Although Phelps hasn't yet cracked the .500 mark, his overall winning percentage of .473 ranks second among Drake coaches after their first four seasons. Only Maury John, who led the Bulldogs to a Final Four, had a better start to his Bulldogs career.
Still, losing a player with Rice's abilities could be the kind of blow a team struggles to recover from. But the Bulldogs are confident that simply spreading the ball around will help them overcome Rice's departure.
"Rayvonte was a big part of our team last year. But I have a lot of confidence in the new guys coming in, a lot of confidence in the guys returning," Simons said. "I think we're going to be OK."