Booneville, Miss. - Cord Wright's mission of placing the Northeast Mississippi Community College men's basketball program back amidst the country's best teams has proven to be successful.
The Tigers made their return to Hutchinson, Kan., and "The Tournament" by winning their ninth National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) regional championship in school history during a memorable 2015-16 campaign.
Northeast followed that last year by claiming a 16th Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) North Division title and came within three points of making a second consecutive trip to the historic Hutchinson Sports Arena.
But for the Tigers to capture a major championship for a third straight season, Wright must turn to a cast of new characters to extend the high standards maintained under his watch.
Gone are five players from that MACJC North Division title team that signed collegiate scholarships, including Kendarius Smith and Kendall Stafford at the University of North Alabama, Leroy Buchanan at Murray State (Ky.) University and Shunn Buchanan at New Mexico State University.
Wright and assistant coach Kyle Morris have replaced those talented young men with a sensational recruiting class that features nine true freshman and three transfers from other colleges.
"We've got a bunch of new guys," said Wright, who enters his fifth year as head coach at Northeast. "They've been going hard in practice. You can feel their energy. It's going to be fun and exciting."
Givens was the second leading scorer for Lincoln Trail (Ill.) College with 12.1 points per game. The South Bend, Ind., native also averaged 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.2 steals during his lone season with the Statesmen.
Antares Gwyn, who sat out the 2016-17 campaign, is another promising player for the Tigers. He averaged double figures for three years in a row at Corinth High School, including 18.4 points and 12.5 rebounds as a senior.
Northeast invaded the Jackson metro area once again to pick up a trio of stellar hoopsters. Thomas Cain went to Hillcrest Christian School, Arthur Johnson hails from Forest Hill High School while Denzel McDuffey comes to the City of Hospitality out of Clinton High School.
Felix Hayes continues the longstanding tradition of Prentiss County's finest joining the Tigers. He led Baldwyn to the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 2A state championship game as a senior.
Brandon Mills stands out as the tallest player on the squad at six feet, nine inches. He helped Mendenhall High School advance to the MHSAA Class 4A State Tournament one year ago.
The Tigers are blessed to also have a nice triumvirate of sophomores back for their final seasons on the Booneville campus, including Conner McKay of Baldwyn and Powder Springs, Ga., product Bryce Smith.
McKay had the highest three-point percentage for Northeast at 40.2. He appeared in all 29 contests for the Tigers on their road to both the MACJC and NJCAA Region 23 championship games with 6.7 points per outing.
Smith controlled the post as a freshman with averages of 4.9 points and five rebounds. The 6-8, 225-pound forward recorded a double-double at Northwest Mississippi Community College last season with 13 points and 10 boards.
"There's a lot of different pieces here," Wright said. "We've got some size. We've got some point guard play. We've got some wings that are athletic and can do some things. I think that collectively we've met all our needs and now we'll see what they do as the season progresses.
"When you sign 12 new guys, there's a lot of unknowns. But I'm ready to see how these young men develop. They're good kids and continue to work hard. Things are going to happen for them in a positive way."
Northeast begins the new campaign with four consecutive matchups inside Bonner Arnold Coliseum, including its opener on Monday, November 6 versus first-time opponent Faith (Ark.) Prepatory Academy.