The first regular season game is yet to be played (although Oneida will have traveled to Union County for the season opener by the time this is printed) and already the word is getting out.

“I was surprised,” said one high school coach who has seen Oneida in action during the preseason. “They’re going to be improved.”

There’s a certain buzz around the Oneida program as the season opens. Of course, to be fair, coaching changes always create renewed interest and buzz. And it isn’t as though anyone is picking the Indians as a dark-horse candidate to win the reconfigured District 3-A this year. But as Oneida alumnus Jacob King prepares to begin his second stint as the Indians’ head coach, a lot of interested parties around the district are curiously watching to see how it’s going to pan out.

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The complete story can be found in the November 16, 2017 print edition of the Independent Herald.[/s2If]

[s2If current_user_can(access_s2member_level1)]Don’t expect King to give too much away. He takes a sort of awe-shucks approach to his coaching return, joking that he’s going to have to learn how to use Hudl — the video hosting service that has taken the prep sports world by storm but that wasn’t popular when King last coached nearly a decade ago — and saying it’s going to take him a while to find his groove.

King doesn’t have much to say about the rest of the district (“We’re worried about us,” he says), or about who his starters will be when the Indians take the court for this week’s Hall of Fame games against Union County and Pigeon Forge (“I’m pretty sure I have my starting five figured out but I can’t tell you what it’ll be after Christmas”).

But one tidbit that King doesn’t care to divulge? His team is ready to compete.

“I want my kids believing they can play with anybody,” he said. “I’m not saying we can, but I want them to believe.”

While Oneida has not advanced beyond the district tournament since any of the players on this year’s team have been on the roster, there were plenty of close calls. In other words, the Indians may already be closer than many realize.

“Last year they lost 10 games by 10 points or less,” King said. “I think we have a chance to open some people’s eyes.”

Oneida’s primary rotation will likely include a mix of Dante West, Dawson Branstetter, Zac Burchfield, Zak Kazee, Logan Stephens, Chancery Botts, Dalton Yancey, Elijah West, Kolby Morgan and Nate Bowling.

King doesn’t offer many particulars on individual players, but says he expects five of his seniors to contribute this season, along with a couple of freshmen.

Kazee, one of those seniors, will be key to the Indians’ success this season. As for the freshmen — Morgan and Bowling — they may be able to contribute almost immediately, although Morgan is slowed by a broken leg that will cause him to miss the first few weeks of the season.

King said there is a difference between his first team this time around and the teams he had during his last stint as Oneida’s coach.

“The last time, I had athletes,” he said. “I have basketball players this time. We have a little more talent than the last time I was here.”

The Indians wasted little time going to work once King was hired. With assistant coach Torrey Slaven leading the strength and conditioning program, the Indians hit the weight room.

“These kids have been in the weight room three days a week since I got hired,” King said. “Torrey has done a great job with that. Our shoulders are broader. We’re bigger, we’re faster, we’re stronger.”

That should pay off once varsity play begins.

“I think we’ll surprise some people,” King said. “We’re going to be play tough-nosed defense, we’re going to get after it, and we’re going to try to out-muscle some people. Who wouldn’t? I’ve got three kids that are 6-3, 6-4 and 6-5.”

King is referring to Kazee, Stephens and the sophomore Yancey. The addition of Stephens — who sat out last season and was not sure he would return for his senior campaign with a collegiate career waiting in football — was big for King. Now he can play two of his “bigs” at once without worrying too much about foul problems.

King’s preference is for a fast-paced game. But if he has to play a half-court game, he’s okay with that, too. The main thing is to win.

“I like to get up and down the floor, but if I gotta slow it down to beat somebody, we’re going to be prepared to do that,” he said. “If we can run, let’s run. But we’ve got the size to pound it down inside.”

King brings a no-nonsense approach in his return to the Oneida program — two weeks before the season opened he was keeping track of how many days of practice his team had remaining before the season-opener at Union County. For now, the focus is on getting better.

“Individually, one-on-one, we’re pretty good, but we’re just trying to instill team basketball,”

In the meantime, he has a message for fans: be patient.

“What I want to tell people is it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “It’s going to be a process. I’m new to them and they’re new to me. But I’ll tell you this: We’re going to play hard and we’re going to be disciplined.”[/s2If]