QUINCY -- Ryan Hellenthal is setting the bar low, as low as he possibly can.
It sounds funny to phrase it that way, but the Quincy University men's basketball team's standards are based around defensive efficiency. The lower the score, the higher the Hawks' success rate.
At least that's the plan.
"The defensive end has to be our identity," said Hellenthal, entering his third season as the Hawks' head coach. "For us to win games, we're going to have to hold teams to less than 70 points. That's the bottom line."
The Hawks saw the good and bad of that in two exhibition games.
In a 105-64 loss at Northwestern, the Hawks allowed the Wildcats to shoot 40 percent from 3-point range and 62 percent from the field overall, while forcing just nine turnovers. In Tuesday's 61-52 loss at SIU-Edwardsville, the Cougars shot 39 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from 3-point range, while committing 17 turnovers.
It was a step in the right direction.
"I like how much we grew on the defensive side from one game to another," junior guard Ryan Briscoe said. "We kind of got our mouth kicked in and it kind of woke us up a little bit. I think we're growing every single day. SIUE was a great test for us and it showed us what we can do. Going into this weekend, we know we can have confidence in each other."
The Hawks open their season at 2 p.m. Friday against Cedarville in the GMAC/GLVC Challenge in Findlay, Ohio. Quincy also faces No. 17 Findlay at 5 p.m. Saturday.
"I learned we're going to stick together through the good and the bad," junior guard Austin Downing said. "We've got a lot of fight in us. I just don't think we'll back down from anyone no matter who we are playing against."
There will be challenges every step of the way.
Over the first month of the season, the Hawks will mix trips to Purdue Northwest, a Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference school in Hammond, Ind., and Great Lakes Valley Conference rival Truman State in amongst winnable home games against NCAA Division III and NAIA programs.
Following the Christmas break, the Hawks play two GLVC games on the road before settling in to conference play every week. The road slate features trips to Bellarmine, Southern Indiana and Indianapolis, just a subtle reminder nothing will be easy for a team facing depth issues.
The Hawks will have just 10 healthy players for the opener. Senior guard Trevor Meny was lost for the year with a torn ACL. Junior college transfers Charles Callier and Sterlen Thomas are battling injuries, and freshman guard JaMir Price left the team for personal reasons. It's forced the coaching staff to add some junior varsity players to the roster.
And, more than anything else, it puts a higher priority on being sound defensively.
"Our margin for error is very slim," Hellenthal said. "We have to be a team that can create some easy baskets in transition and not put our offense under pressure to rally from big deficits. At some point this year, if not all year, our defense has to become a good offense for us."
The Hawks return only one of their top four scorers from last season, although Marcus Hinton didn't play the final eight games and Downing played only five games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.
Briscoe, senior forward Aziz Fadika and junior forward Tanner Stuckman received valuable experience either starting or coming off the bench, and Downing averaged 11.2 points before the injury. Add Viktor Kovacevic, a 6-foot-7 junior college transfer, and redshirt freshman Jonah Smith to the offensive mix and the Hawks appear more dynamic.
"That experience gives us a big advantage," Briscoe said. "Even though we did not play to our abilities last year, we gained a lot of experience and we know what it takes and how you have to prepare to win."
They also know how detrimental turnovers and other mistakes can be.
"We have to be a little more crisp because of our turnovers," Briscoe said after the Hawks committed 20 turnovers against Northwestern and 24 against SIUE. "We've been a little loose with the ball. Communication at times will lapse on the defensive side when we get tired. We have to fight through some things and be a little more tight and crisp with our effort."
Hellenthal is confident those things will iron themselves out because of the character this team has shown so far.
"I love this group's toughness," Hellenthal said. "They do fight and they understand there's a certain standard we have to play at as far as how hard we play and how smart we play."