TROY — The curtain rises on a new season and a new era of Troy Trojans basketball Thursday night.

There are easier ways to start a season. Troy opens with UAB at 7 p.m. in Trojan Arena.

Scott Cross’ first Trojan team has been schooled in defense, conditioning and hard work. He talks about cultivating a “blue-collar” work ethic. It is not coincidence that the first player he mentioned likely isn’t going to lead the Trojans in scoring or rebounding.

“We have a guy, Nick Stampley, that’s a power forward,” Cross said. “If you ranked our guys 1 through 14, he’s not going to be in the top 8 or 9 in terms of just raw talent, but he’s a guy that will play 25 or 30 minutes a game for us.

“He closes out on his guy every time, he’s going to put his hands up, he jumps to the ball every time, he’s going to block out every time. Every time we shoot he’s crashing the boards. He’s the poster child of everything that we preach to our guys.”

Fortunately, Cross said there are others who are right there with Stampley.

“Which is really good,” the coach added. “When you get two, three, four guys doing that, you have a chance to be really special defensively. He definitely sets the tone for us. He’s fun to coach.”

The team has just one senior, Charles “Chuck” Norman. He and teammate Darian Adams talked about the rigors of Cross’ preseason, which included a defensive “boot camp.”

“He put you in uncomfortable positions,” Adams said. “But it makes you better. We weren’t mad about it, we didn’t pout about it. We knew that whatever he was doing was a winning recipe, we just bought into it.”

“In my opinion, this is probably the toughest preseason I’ve ever been a part of since I’ve been playing basketball,” Norman said. “Just running the stairs, waking up early for a whole week not touching a basketball. Defensive stations. It was different. But it helped us a lot mentally and I can see that even the freshmen and sophomores, it got them tougher. I could see it.”

It also served as a bonding experience for every player. And you can bet every Trojan saw that they were picked to finish in last place in the Sun Belt Conference.

“We put it in a group chat and we use that motivation every day,” Adams said. “We look at it. We play with a chip on our shoulder.”

“Like DA said, we’re embracing being picked last right now, because we’re not going to be there for long,” Norman said. “All this hard work is not going to be for nothing.”

Cross said he understands what went into that preseason pick.

“They ended up not finishing strong last year and you lose Jordon (Varnado), B.J. (Miller), (Alex) Hicks,” the coach said, mentioning the team’s top seniors. Troy also lost its leading returning scorer Javan Johnson, who transferred to Iowa State.

“It’s the unknown. I don’t think it’s a shot at anyone. There’s a lot of really good basketball teams in the Sun Belt. Conference championships aren’t won in the polls. That’s why they play the games.”

The players and Cross have been excited to see the development of sophomore Zay Williams, a 6-foot-9 sophomore from Birmingham.

“He’s really blossomed,” Cross said. “He’s been getting in the gym extra, after practice or before. Since school started, during that time, that’s one of the biggest jumps I’ve ever seen a player (make).

“He’s a guy that if he keeps improving at that rate, NBA scouts are going to want to look at him. He can shoot the 3, can pass it. He checks all the boxes, he just needs to get stronger. He’s put on some weight, but once he really gets his body physically ready, he’s going to be a problem for people.”

Williams’ teammates agree.

“Zay came a long ways,” Adams said. “Zay, last year, we knew he was good, but he was a freshman. Zay bought into what coach was telling him the last three months — ‘You gotta put in work if you want to be there’ — and he put in work. Once he put in work, it showed. Zay’s been going crazy. Zay looks real different out there.”

“Something clicked with Zay. I don’t know what it was, but he’s just locked in on a whole other level,” Norman said. “When Zay came here, he probably was like my weight, 180. I’m 6-2. He’s 6-10. Now he’s like 200, 210, something like that. I’m excited for Zay. I know he’s going to do a lot of big things this season.”

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