After a loss in the first round of the NCAA Division II South Central Regional Tournament last year, the St. Mary’s men’s basketball team is back and ready to win. With three returning starters, a talented recruiting class and a locker room full of leadership, this team seems to have all the characteristics they need to be successful this season.

Among their talented returning players is senior center Kevin Kotzur, a preseason All-American selection and the Most Valuable Player of the 2012 Heartland Conference Tournament. This year, Kotzur wants to focus on developing his leadership skills and helping the team in whatever way he can – a goal that begins tonight as the Rattlers open up the 2012-13 season at the University of the Incarnate Word. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at UIW’s McDermott Center.

“I really just want to be a leader,” said Kotzur, who has won a multitude of awards during his stint as a Rattler. “The honors will come with that. Our team has six seniors and we’re all going to try and lead our team in a different direction.”

Also on the roster of returning players is senior guard Daryell Taylor. Taylor was ranked 15th in the Heartland Conference in scoring last season (11.1 points per game) and was ranked 10th in the conference in 3-pointers.

Taylor understands what it takes to be in a role of leadership; he often recalls what head coach Jim Zeleznak says when he encourages the team to do better.

“Coach Z says all the time, ‘You can’t tell anyone else something if you don’t keep your own house clean,'” Taylor said. “I’m taking care of my own business and making sure I lead by example before I tell anyone anything. That takes being the first one there for practice, trying to get there an hour ahead of time just to let the guys know what Coach expects of us.”

When the time comes to play in high-pressure situations, Taylor believes the team will be able to call upon their experiences last year in the regional tournament to help them push toward a victory.

“I feel like since we’ve been on that stage and in that adversity, some of the guys might be familiar with it,” Taylor said. “The (players) we have this year have been getting prepared for that moment (throughout) their careers. I think the pressure will be a factor in how we can play together as a team and how we can pull together when we face adversity.”

The third returning starter is senior guard Moses Sundufu. Sundufu averaged 9.3 points per game and was ranked seventh in the conference for his 3-point percentage at 41.3 percent.

Sundufu believes the team is better prepared for the regional tournament atmosphere this year and will do whatever he can to make sure his teammates work hard to achieve their goals for the season.

“Most of the guys that were there know what it’s like,” Sundufu said. “Last year, most of the guys weren’t used to pressure like that, so we know what it’s going to be like. We worked hard to get there. We just have to make the right play, be confident in whoever takes that last shot. Whatever happens, we just have to know that we gave it our all.”

Zeleznak has seen many qualities of a prosperous team from the time the players starting working out after the end of their season last year through the preseason scrimmages of their current season. The team has a great work ethic, many players who take their role as leaders seriously, and players who understand what it takes to get back to the regional tournament and win.

“I get the feeling that (the team) wasn’t in any way satisfied with just getting (to the regional tournament), and I think that’s carried over with their work ethic in our fall workouts and practices,” Zeleznak said. “I think they all saw what it takes to get there and what it takes to win games there and that’s been a part of what I call their DNA, which is their work ethic and attitude; it’s one of the things that make up putting a decent team together.”

With the great amount of returning players, Zeleznak is relieved to see that those players know what it takes to progress back to the regional tournament.

“I think that they saw what can happen with their team,” Zeleznak said. “They saw how much better your team can be when they bring the mental focus and mental preparation day in and day out. It brings you much closer to your potential when everyone starts to work together.”

Zeleznak has not been paying attention to what’s going on with teams across the conference and across the region, for he is just focused on making his own team as good as it can be.

“I haven’t paid a lot of attention to what the other teams have back this year and their recruiting classes,” Zeleznak said. “I’m more concerned with the day-to-day progress of this particular team. I just worry about our guys getting better and I know that if things like mental focus and mental preparation happen on a day-to-day basis, really good things can happen to this group.”

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