The Mountaineers have struggled at times since joining the USA South Conference two seasons ago.

They have a combined record of 9-25 against league opponents, have never finished higher than fifth in their division and have failed to qualify for the conference tournament either year.

"It's a good league and its a competitive league," Berea College coach John Hemenway said. "When you travel to the other division, there's some real road trips there. It's difficult. And there are some really veteran teams in this league."

In the past two seasons, the Mountaineers simply didn't have the experience and depth to compete with the better teams in the NCAA Division III league -- which has teams in

Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.

However, things might be different this season.

The Mountaineers return their top three scorers and have had several players return to the program who should once again make a big impact.

Berea College was picked to finish second in the USA South Western Division preseason poll. The Mountaineers got one first-place vote.

Berea, LaGrange and Maryville all received 25 points in the poll. Defending division champion Covenant was picked as the preseason favorite.

"Adding depth and continuing to recruit and build the program with some returners will make a big difference," Hemenway said. "I feel like we have more of a loaded gun heading into the year instead of just trying to piece things together. The expectations are a little higher. But, we haven't won a game yet."

The Mountaineers bring back a group of players who helped the team posted an 11-14 record last season, including 6-12 against USA South opponents.

Torrel Carter, Isaac Caudill and Andrew Doty all jumped into the starting lineup as freshman and have developed into leaders.

"Torrel, Isaac and Andrew were our best three players," Hemenway said.

"Torrell was a sophomore and Andrew and Isaac were freshmen. So, it's nice to have that core back again this year."

Carter posted a triple-double in his first game and was the 2017-2018 USA South Freshman of the Year. The 6-foot-3 junior guard from Whitesburg averaged a team-best 20.6 points a game last season.

"He's a little bit more mature. A little bit stronger," Hemenway said of Carter. "He still needs to continue to work on his perimeter jumpshot."

Caudill was last year's USA South Freshman of the Year. The 6-foot-3 sophomore guard from Knott County Central averaged 18.2 points a game.

Doty, a 6-foot-6 forward from Estill County, also had a great first season at Berea College. He averaged 11 points and six rebounds a game.

"He had a good freshman year," Hemenway said of Doty. "We are playing him more at the power forward spot this year."

Madison Central graduate Terique Miller played two seasons at Berea (2016-17 and 2017-18), but was not with the program last year.

He has returned to the team and will have two years of eligibility left. The 5-foot-11, junior guard has already shown his offensive ability at the college level.

On Jan. 30, 2018, Miller hit 11 three-pointer and scored 48 points against Johnson University.

"Two years ago, he averaged about 16 points a game," Hemenway said of Miller. "He's a capable scorer and shooter."

Jair Jackson, a 6-foot-7 senior forward from Greenup County, missed most of last season with a knee injury. He earned a fifth year of eligibility and gives Berea another athletic presence on the inside/wing.

M.J. Embree, a 6-foot-3 junior forward from LaRue County, is also back. He averaged 6.3 points a game last season.

Dakota Mays played in only 13 games last season. The 6-foot-5, junior guard from Tennessee returns to add veteran leadership.

Seniors Alex Aten (6-foot-7) and Jacob Keibler (6-foot-8) are also back, giving Berea plenty of muscle on the inside.

The Mountaineers signed five freshmen, several of which could play a lot this season.

Kevion Hudson, a 6-foot, guard, was an outstanding player for Waggener High School in Louisville.

"He was an all-region player," Hemenway said of Hudson. "He's a good athletic guard. He can play the point."

Brady Whitaker, a 5-foot-10 guard, was a finalist for Mr. Basketball last year from Magoffin County.

Tyler Boggs, a 6-foot-7, forward, was a standout at Letcher County.

In addition, Berea added a junior college transfer. DeAnte Booker, a 6-foot-3, junior guard, was at Lincoln Trail Community College in Illinois.

Berea is set to open the season today at Eureka College.

The Mountaineers will play their first home game on Feb. 13 against Campbellsville University-Harrodsburg.

While Covenant College may be the favorite to win the USA South Western Division title, Hemenway believes his team is ready to compete with the rest of the league.

"Covenant won the league last year and they bring everyone back," Hemenway said. "Even though we were picked second, I wouldn't say we are clearly the second choice. In our division, it is going to be a dogfight every night."

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