In the preseason, one question continually daunted the Eastern Kentucky University men's basketball team -- how do you move on without Nick Mayo?
For the first time in four years, the Colonels would be without the school's all-time leading scorer, who carried much of the offensive responsibility during his final season.
Mayo scored 2,316 points (fifth most by an OVC player) and -- arguably even more impressive -- started every game during his four-year Colonel career -- 124 consecutive starts.
In his preseason comments, EKU men's basketball coach A.W. Hamilton acknowledged that adversity would hit and, without Mayo, his young team would need to adjust and answer the trials head-on if they wanted to be competitive in the coach's second season.
Adversity hit earlier than expected.
EKU was picked to finish sixth out of 12 teams in a preseason poll of league head coaches and sports information directors and ninth in the OVC Media Poll.
The Colonels also faced a tough non-conference schedule which included games against all the state's Division I basketball programs -- including road games at top-ranked Louisville and Kentucky.
Then, injuries started to pile up.
Four of EKU's starters would be sidelined before the start of Ohio Valley Conference play.
Season-opening starters Houston King and Darius Hicks, along with Peyton Broughton, all sustained season-ending injuries in the first half of the season.
Point guard Kelvin Robinson left the program shortly before the season began.
With a short bench, Hamilton said the team focused more on conditioning and limited contact during practices.
"We had to adjust how we practiced. Stretching and doing flexibility things. I couldn't afford anyone to roll an ankle or get a bad bruise. We couldn't afford anything. We couldn't have any more injuries," the coach explained.
The battered Colonels limped into conference play on an eight-game skid and with a meager 3-10 non-conference record.
"We were disappointed in our non-conference. We felt like we had some games that we should've won. But we are a young team, most of our starters were freshman and sophomores. We had to try to figure out roles and we were adjusting," Hamilton explained.
The coach acknowledged that many people had already counted the Colonels out in December, but EKU's season was far from over.
Remarkably, at the start of OVC play, the Colonels turned their season around and made history along the way.
The Colonels went 3-1 in a four-game homestand to begin conference play and then after losing to eventual OVC Tournament champion Belmont on the road, strung together a six-game winning streak.
That streak was the Colonels' longest regular season conference win streak since 2007.
EKU's 9-2 start to OVC play turned heads and made program history as the best conference start by an EKU team in 41 years (1978-79).
The wins kept coming after that and EKU continued to knock off OVC opponents on the road. EKU's five OVC road wins tied for the most by an EKU team since 2007.
The Colonels won 12 OVC games during the regular season, which is tied for the second-most conference victories in a season by any EKU team (13 is the most).
That hard work paid off as the Colonels emerged from OVC play as the four-seed and punched a ticket to the OVC Tournament for the first time since 2015.
Hamilton said he could not be more proud of his team's success in the face of so much adversity.
"No question, from where we started to where we are now, it's amazing. I'm really proud of the guys. We went through so much adversity in our non-conference schedule. From injuries to a lot of other stuff that happened to us. For us to bounce back and go 12-6 in the league… it's only the fourth time in the history of our program we've won 12 or more (conference) games. I'm really proud of how we responded," the coach said.
The remarkable turnaround earned Hamilton the OVC Coach of the Year award this season, an honor, he said, that was earned by the hard work of his players.
"That was more of a team award, more than an A.W. Hamilton award," the coach said. "I'm proud of our team. When you win something like that, it is because your team had a lot of success. They obviously overachieved more than what a lot of people thought they would."
Hamilton is the first EKU coach to earn that honor since Max Good in 1987.
After earning a crucial bye in the OVC Tournament, the Colonels went on to record their first postseason victory since 2014 with a 58-48 victory over Tennessee State in the OVC quarterfinals.
Belmont topped EKU in the semifinals of the tournament, but EKU was invited to play in the 2020 CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT) that was scheduled for later this month.
The event, however, was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns.
Hamilton said it was an honor, nonetheless, for the Colonels.
"I feel bad for our seniors, who won't have another opportunity to represent EKU and the city of Richmond," the coach said. "We understand the safety of our players and the safety of our community at large is the highest priority."
Despite not getting a chance to play in the CIT, this team accomplished so much, and I hope EKU fans remember them as a group that helped this program turn a major corner."
Major contributors to the team's success include sophomores Jomaru Brown and Tre King who were voted to All-OVC teams this season. Brown was voted first team and King was second team.
This season, Brown surpassed 1,000 points and is on pace to be EKU's all-time leader in steals.
Hamilton said the sophomore has a strong chance of surpassing Mayo's points record if the program continues to succeed.
"This is what is going to help Jomaru. We are going to play postseason basketball. He is going to have more games. Jomaru is a special talent. He loves to play, he loves to be coached, he loves Eastern Kentucky. He wants to win," the coach said.
Hamilton also praised the growth of King, who he said is only going to get better.
"It's been great to watch him this season. He's grown so much and doesn't even realize the potential he has," Hamilton said.
King was the team's third-leading scorer, second in rebounds and led the team in blocked shots.
The Colonels will only lose three seniors this year, which include major contributors Ty Taylor and Lachlan Anderson.
Taylor, a graduate transfer, ended this season as the team's second-leading scorer and shot 74 three pointers.
Anderson was the team's third-leading rebounder and fourth-leading scorer.
Mason Cooper will remain with the program in a coaching capacity next season, Hamilton said.
Hamilton said he will miss his seniors, but acknowledged that most of the team will be back and hungry for more success.
"We got a great core group coming back. Tre King and Jomaru Brown will be older and stronger. Freshman Michael Moreno will be back. He really turned it up in conference play and led us in rebounding. We love our recruiting class coming in," Hamilton said.
EKU finished the season with a 16-17, 12-6 OVC record and ranked fifth in the country in turnovers forced/game (18.27), seventh in steals/game (9.3) and 10th in turnover margin (+4.3).
The coach said he expects his team to be even better next season, due to the adversity they faced in his second year as a coach.
"They have a taste for being back in the tournament. We've done some incredible things, We have a lot of momentum coming into our next season…. The chemistry that we developed was special. I think this is my eighth year as a head coach and I've only had one or two teams that have had great chemistry like this team had and a lot of them are coming back," Hamilton said. "We are excited about the future."