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Whitworth counting on Riley

Whitworth's David Riley, right, puts up shot against Chapman in last season's NCAA Division III playoff games.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Whitworth's David Riley, right, puts up shot against Chapman in last season's NCAA Division III playoff games. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Pirates open basketball season on Friday

For three years, David Riley has contributed to the immense success of Whitworth University’s men’s basketball team by doing what he does best – which is score points.

That will be the primary role of the 6-foot-5 senior wing again this winter as the Pirates, ranked No. 16 in the preseason poll, attempt to successfully defend their Northwest Conference title and earn a fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Division III tournament.

But unlike past seasons, the two-time All-NWC first-team pick will have to do it while drawing the majority of attention from opposing defenses.

Jim Hayford, the Bucs’ 10th-year head coach, should get a good read on how Riley might handle that added pressure on Friday, when Loras (Iowa) College visits Whitworth Fieldhouse for an 8 p.m. game that will serve as the season opener for both teams.

“David is one of only two guys who have been a four-year starter for me, and he’s always been able to score,” Hayford said of Riley, who shot 40.9 percent (65 for 159) from 3-point range and averaged 13.4 points per game last season in helping Whitworth to a 26-3 record that included a perfect 16-0 mark in the NWC and a trip to the Sweet 16 of the D-III tournament. “But he has always been surrounded by some really good players, where he was not necessarily the first target of the other team’s defense.

“That will undoubtedly change this year, but I’m thinking David is worthy of the challenge.”

Three of the Pirates’ top four scorers from last season, including NWC Player of the Year Nate Montgomery and all-NWC point guard Eric Beal, were lost to graduation. But the return of Riley and seven other letterwinners, along with the addition of senior guard Michael Taylor, a first-year transfer who previously played at Eastern Washington and Montana, is enough to make Whitworth a solid favorite to win another NWC title.

Taylor, a former standout at Brewster High School, scored 25 points in the first half of last Sunday’s 99-68 exhibition win over a Whitworth alumni team.

“He’s a very special player,” Hayford said of the 6-4 Taylor, who could join two other former Brewster players – brothers Clay and Wade Gebbers – in the Bucs’ starting backcourt Saturday night. “His role will be different that it was in the Big Sky, because he’ll be asked to do things other than just be a shooter – although he is an unbelievable shooter.”

Taylor joins a program that has gone 189-55 during Hayford’s tenure, which includes seven 20-win seasons and five NCAA tournament appearances. Hayford expects that success to continue, despite last spring’s graduation losses.

“I feel that if you set a certain expectation level, you’re players will want to meet it,” Hayford said. “And it’s a benefit to the guys in our program this year that the expectation level is very high. The problem of our players trying to meet those expectations is certainly better than trying to take them somewhere they’ve never been.

“What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that our players trust the recipe, and they’re eager for their turn.”