The Montreat Cavaliers have had this kind of success before, in a way.
In the 1999-2000 season they won 22 games and the title in the now-defunct Tennessee Valley Athletic Conference. That season they played in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics D-II Championship Tournament.
Six years later the team put up the same number of wins, brought home the Appalachian Athletic Conference title and was one of the final 16 teams in the NAIA D-II championship tournament.
Both teams have banners hanging up in McAlister Gymnasium. But neither started 9-0 like this season's Cavs.
Montreat opened the season in October with a 101-71 win over Bob Jones University at home. A few nights later, on Nov. 1, the team put up 117 points against Toccoa Falls while holding them to 85 points.
The Cavaliers won their ninth straight game at home on Nov. 21, when junior Alonzo Mobley scored his 1,000th career point against St. Andrews University.
Coming into the season, expectations were high for Montreat, which was ranked 23rd in the NAIA D-II preseason poll. It was clear that the Cavs, who won 19 games a season ago, wouldn’t sneak up on teams this season. That wouldn’t be a problem, according to Jesse Gardner.
Gardner, whose number 20 is retired by the team, was inducted into the Cavaliers Hall of Fame in 2007. He was a sophomore in 1999 and by the time he graduated in 2002 he was Montreat’s all-time leader in scoring, assists, rebounds and steals. He was number two in career blocks. He’s impressed by this iteration of the Cavs.
“This is probably the most athletic team I have ever seen at Montreat College,” said Gardner, who still lives in Black Mountain and attends games at his alma mater regularly. “They are super-athletic.”
Gardner doesn't know that from merely watching (though on Nov. 21 he watched as the Cavs picked up their ninth consecutive win, 67-59 over St. Andrews University). He knows that from playing against the team during last months' annual alumni game. “They wore us out,” he said. “It’s an exciting group.”
With the win over St. Andrews the Cavs improved to 4-0 in the AAC. Leading scorer Alonzo Mobley, a junior, picked up his 1,000th career point.
Head coach Garrett Jones has been pleased with how his team has responded to the pressure of a preseason ranking.
“You don’t just win or lose games on game night. There’s work that goes into that all off-season, through the summer and fall,” he said. “As a coach I think the coolest thing is to see the guys be rewarded for the hard work they’ve put in.”
Players are focusing on the things they can control, the coach said. That is translating to success on the court.
“It always starts with being able to have a good attitude while giving good effort,” Jones said. “Those are the two things you can control. If you have those things, everything else kind of falls into place after that.”
If anyone around the team knows what it takes to win games, it’s Tim Lewis who with Kent Otto is an assistant coach for the team. Lewis, whose number 44 hangs in McAlister's rafters next to former teammate Noble Anthony's number 34, helped lead the team deep into the postseason in 2002.
Like Gardner and many former Cavs, Lewis is excited about this team.
“Our team this year is so much more athletic than we were back when I played,” he said.
Physical ability alone doesn't account for the success the team has had this season, Lewis said.
"Coach Jones has done a tremendous job of getting guys to buy into the system, and he's brought in great recruits," he said. "The guys are clicking now. But it all starts with young men having the mindset that they want to be coached."
Flourishing under Jones' leadership are player like Mobley, the team's athletic guard. His 16 points per game on 78.8 percent shooting from the floor lead the Cavs. He's averaging more than seven rebounds per game.
Jeron Hemphill, a junior who transferred to the school last year during the second semester, is also emerging as versatile scoring threat. That doesn't surprise Jones.
"I knew going into this year, having all off-season and all first semester to play in the games, he would hit his groove early for us," Jones said. "He's been a really good player for us."
However, the team's overall athletic ability really shines on the defensive side of the ball, where the team consistently plays tough perimeter defense.
Through the first nine games, the Cavs have held opponents to slightly more than 70 points per game,often forcing turnovers late in contests to create points on the other end.
The roster is perfectly suited for the uptempo style of play that has translated to victories so far this season, according to Gardner.
"They thrive on ball pressure," he said. "Coach Jones is great at planning around their strengths."
Jones is also helping the players get the most out of their God-given talent, Lewis said.
"As a Christian institution we really try to impress on the guys that God has given you this athletic ability and this is how you honor him," he said. "When we're able to encourage guys to do that and win games while doing that, it makes it fun."