FORTVILLE — There were more questions than answers for the Mt. Vernon boys basketball team when the 2017-18 season opened three weeks ago.

Losing three starters — and the team’s top-three scorers — from last year’s starting lineup, the program stood at a crossroads in late November.

Either this could be a rebuilding year or the Marauders could find a new identity. At 4-1 to start the season, including a flawless 4-0 before last Friday’s 63-59 loss to Pendleton Heights, the Marauders have chose the latter.

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And this weekend’s back-to-back slate beginning with Hoosier Heritage Conference foe Shelbyville tonight will give them an opportunity to build upon their new-look cohesiveness.

“One of the fun things about this group this year is there has been a collective chip on their shoulder,” Mt. Vernon head coach Travis Daugherty said. “We obviously lost some really good players from last year’s team, but these guys have really bought into working and playing together. They’re playing for each other.”

A year ago, Mt. Vernon’s offense ran through 2016-17 Indiana All-Star guard Michael Ertel, who is now at Louisiana-Monroe. When Ertel wasn’t pouring in buckets at 19.8 points per game, the ball dropped inside to graduated senior big man Erick Shepherd, now at Ancilla College, or slasher James McCloud, who is continuing his career at Taylor University.

Through five games, the Marauders’ next men up have taken hold, led by senior Damari Gatewood and junior Logan Smith.

At 6-foot-1, Gatewood is averaging 16.4 points, 1.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game never falling below 12 points this season. He posted a season-high 22 points against Decatur Central at home during Mt. Vernon’s 56-52 victory.

Smith, who runs with Indiana Ice in the offseason, has increased his production from last season, doubling his points per game average from 6.3 to 12.2. The 6-2 guard’s rebounding average has jumped from 3.3 to 7.0 and he’s holding steady with 1.6 steals a night.

“There’s a lot of talent, but we’ve said from the beginning, the talent on this team really shines through when we’re doing it for each other,” Daugherty said. “That’s not always the easiest thing for young guys to do, but overall this group has done a good job. They’ve seen the fruit of their labor when they do it right.”

As a group, the Marauders haven’t fallen below 41 percent shooting from the field, peaking with 51 percent in a 77-73 win against Hamilton Heights on Nov. 25. They’ve had a combined 74 assists, including 41 in a one-sided 78-48 win over Covenant Christian on Dec. 1, which echoes their formula.

“It definitely hasn’t been a perfect first five games, but there has been enough for us now to see that when we share the ball, guard hard together, and help each other, that we have the potential to be a good team,” Daugherty said. “Hopefully, that’s something we can continue to build on. We’re still a work in progress. We’re still trying to solidify exactly who we are and these two games this weekend will help us take another step in that direction.”

Being at full strength and back at home for both upcoming games are pluses.

Without 6-4 junior Peyton Meadors last Friday against Pendleton Heights for the HHC opener due to illness, the forward is back at nearly 100 percent.

A standout with Indiana Elite Force 2019, Meadors is averaging 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists for the Marauders. His ability to play inside, outside and run the floor is key to the team’s fluidity on offense, along with the play of junior Cade Gentry (9.0 ppg) and Brandon Bell (9.8 ppg).

Tonight’s matchup against Shelbyville, who the Marauders beat 83-74 last year, is only Mt. Vernon’s second home game of the season. They are 1-0 at home with a win against Decatur Central 13 days ago.

Another victory tonight will put them at .500 in the HHC after losing to the defending league champion Pendleton Heights last week.

“There is frustration because they felt like that was a game we could have won,” Daugherty said. “At the same time, we didn’t play well enough last Friday to win. I mentioned after the game that we didn’t practice well enough last week to win. That’s been the real challenge this week.”

Shelbyville (4-2, 1-1 HHC) carries three double-digit scorers in Zach Kuhn (17.3 ppg and 8.2 rpg), Brock Blackwell (12.0 and 5.0 rpg) and Sam Lewis (10.5 ppg). Kuhn, who stand 6-3, posted a season-high 36 points against against Triton Central on Nov. 25.

The Golden Bears are coming off a 63-47 win against Yorktown this past Saturday to snap a two game losing streak after opening 3-0.

At a glance

Boys Hoops Breakdown

Shelbyville (4-2) at Mt. Vernon (4-1)

GAME TIME: 7:30 p.m.

COACHES: Ryan Mack, 51-48 in 5th year at Shelbyville. Travis Daugherty, 58-38 in 5th year at Mt. Vernon, 176-123 in 14th year overall.

LAST OUTING: Shelbyville defeated Yorktown, 63-47. Mt. Vernon lost to Pendleton Heights, 63-59.

SERIES LAST 30 YEARS: Shelbyville, 15-10.

LAST MEETING: Mt. Vernon, 83-74, Dec. 16, 2016.

BREAKDOWN: The Mt. Vernon Marauders are looking to even up their Hoosier Heritage Conference record against the visiting Shelbyville Golden Bears tonight. At 0-1 in the HHC standings after last Friday’s loss to defending league champion Pendleton Heights, the Marauders are at home for only the second time this season where they are 1-0. Mt. Vernon has a quick turnaround ahead with Rushville at home on Saturday.

Knightstown (2-4) at Eastern Hancock (5-0)

GAME TIME: 7:30 p.m.

COACHES: Dusty Magee, 5-24 in 2nd year at Knightstown. Aaron Spaulding, 205-200 in 19th year at Eastern Hancock.

LAST OUTING: Knightstown lost to Indiana Math & Science, 60-53, 2 overtimes. Eastern Hancock defeated Randolph Southern, 70-50.

SERIES LAST 30 YEARS: Eastern Hancock, 23-17.

LAST MEETING: Eastern Hancock, 56-51, Dec. 16, 2016.

BREAKDOWN: It’s rivalry night at Eastern Hancock with the girls varsity team opening the doubleheader evening at 6 p.m. against the visiting Panthers. The boys are off to their best start since 1989-90 and are looking for their second straight win against Knightstown. Led by Addison True (16.2 ppg) and Brycen Napier (12.8 ppg) the Royals face a back-to-back task with an away game at Cambridge City Lincoln on Saturday.

New Palestine (4-1) at New Castle (5-0)

GAME TIME: 7:30 p.m.

COACHES: Trent Whitaker, 17-35 in 3rd year at New Palestine. Daniel Cox, 57-40 in 5th year at New Castle.

LAST OUTING: New Palestine lost to Westfield, 49-44. New Castle defeated Mooresville, 70-48.

SERIES LAST 30 YEARS: New Castle, 14-5.

LAST MEETING: New Castle, 79-77, 2OT, Dec. 16, 2016.

BREAKDOWN: The New Palestine Dragons suffered their first loss of the season against Westfield this past Saturday at home. Prior to the defeat, the Dragons were off to their best start in 22 years. They will look to resume their winning ways on the road at New Castle tonight with both programs at 1-0 in the HHC standings. Defense has been key for the Dragons (49 points allowed or fewer). They travel to Franklin Central on Saturday night.

Yorktown (2-4) at Greenfield-Central (1-3)

GAME TIME: 7:30 p.m.

COACHES: Eric Branz, 2-4 in 1st year at Yorktown, 42-55 in 5th year overall. Lukas Haworth, 1-3 in 1st year at Greenfield-Central.

LAST OUTING: Yorktown lost to Jay County, 49-29. Greenfield-Central lost to New Palestine, 56-44.

SERIES LAST 30 YEARS: Tied, 9-9.

LAST MEETING: Greenfield-Central, 50-44, OT, Dec. 16, 2016.

BREAKDOWN: The Greenfield-Central Cougars have been competitive in all four of their games so far this season, but they have some up short in three, including an overtime loss, 44-42, against Westfield. Riding a two-game losing streak, a matchup against HHC foe Yorktown could get them closer to .500 as they play host to the Tigers. Yorktown has lost three straight and are 0-2 in the HHC. The Cougars are 0-1.

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Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.