Last season was a breakthrough campaign for the USC Aiken men’s basketball team.

The Pacers posted a 25-8 record, including a 15-4 mark against Peach Belt Conference opponents, en route to the league’s regular-season title. They followed that by winning the PBC Tournament and the Southeast Regional of the Division II NCAA Tournament – advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.

Although they lost three wins shy of a national title to eventual champion Drury, the Pacers are expected to contend for a return trip to the Elite Eight and possibly beyond this season. That’s because head coach Vince Alexander will enter his ninth season at USCA with a squad that returns 10 players from a year ago – including four starters.

The Pacers’ roster will also include the return of two quality big men who sat out last season – one because of an injury, the other because of academic issues. With the return of these seniors and a pair of sophomore transfers added to the mix, USCA is expected to do big things. Among other preseason honors, the Pacers have been:

• Picked to win the PBC by the league’s head coaches

• Tabbed No. 4 nationally in the Division II Bulletin men’s basketball Preseason Top 25

• Tabbed sixth in the NABC/Division II Coaches’ Poll

“We have expectations of ourself. We’re not worried about other people,” Alexander said of his squad, which has started the season with a trial by fire, playing exhibitions on the road against SEC programs Ole Miss and South Carolina in a 48-hour span. “I just want them to play as hard as they can every game and as smart as they can every night.”

Few players on the team and possibly the nation will play harder than Paul Larsen. The 6-foot-6 forward who’s embarking on his second season with USCA after transferring from Mercer was a critical performer last season. The senior was recently named Preseason Honorable Mention All-American by Division II Bulletin and to the PBC preseason all-conference team.

“I’m going to come focused. My goal is what coach said he expects from me, a double-double every game,” said Larsen, who averaged 12.1 points and 9.0 rebounds a game last season, when he earned Honorable Mention All-America honors, was named to the Southeast all-district first team and garnered second-team All-PBC accolades. In spite of his individual success, Larsen is much more focused on the team’s goals, and they’re very high according to him. “This is a veteran team, and we want to be undefeated and win a national championship. We have high expectations and know we’ll wear a target on our back.”

Joining Larsen on the All-PBC preseason squad is teammate Ron Zimmerman. The senior guard is one of the top shooters in the nation – regardless of level.

Zimmerman averaged 15.3 points per game as a junior, connecting on an NCAA-best 134 shots from 3-point range and hitting 45.4 percent from downtown. He’s 12th on the PBC’s all-time list in 3-pointers made and was recognized during the Pacers’ run as a third-team All-PBC selection, All-PBC Tournament selection and named to the all-region team.

His ability to stretch opposing defenses and Larsen’s skill for operating inside of them make the Pacers a matchup nightmare for any opponent.

“Our offense runs through Ron and Paul Larsen,” said Alexander, who’s the winningest coach in USCA’s program history. “We want to make sure we’re balanced, inside and out. That starts with Ron. We’ve got to make sure to distribute and play Ron and Paul basketball and feed off that.”

Both Zimmerman and swingman Jesse Seilern are fifth-year players and have a good understanding of Alexander’s system. Seilern is an athletic player who’s often called upon to defend the opposition’s top scorer. While the commitment to defense might limit Seilern’s own production, even though he still averaged a shade less than 10 points a game last season, it’s a sacrifice he makes because it makes the Pacers a better team. He was certainly enthusiastic about the challenge of playing exhibitions against D-I programs.

“As a Division II player, you don’t really get the chance to experience this,” Seilern said. “I’m blessed to have this experience and thank my coaches for making it possible. It’s the best preparation to play two SEC teams. We just need to find our attitude and come together.”

The willingness to embrace a challenge is something a good team needs from a leader, and that’s one of Seilern’s most important roles. With the departure of longtime point guard Re’mon Nelson, one of the best players in USCA history, Seilern will be called on to help fill that void. He and Zimmerman will try to replace Nelson’s production and will have to fill his place as the go-to guy off the court as well.

“On the floor, off the floor, I’m a vocal leader of the team,” Zimmerman said.

On the floor, they’ll be charged with helping ease the transition of DeVontae Wright, the new point guard. Wright missed a good amount of time last season, his first with USCA after transferring from The Citadel, because of an assortment of injuries. When he returned for conference play and the stretch run, he was a major contributor and a more-than-capable sub for Nelson.

Wright averaged 8.2 points per game and dished out 86 assists last season, but he’ll have much greater responsibility this year. He’ll have to do what Nelson did so well on a team with many capable offensive players. That is know when to feed the ball to a teammate or when to call his own number, which Nelson did so often during a season he was named MVP of the PBC and the postseason tournament.

“I need him to defend, keep people in front of him on defense and take care of the ball,” said Alexander, who can be hard on his guards. “He’s got a lot of pressure, but he’s a good point guard. He was here last year and is a good shooter.”

This season, the role of primary point guard understudy will be played by Grant Harris. He saw limited time as a true freshman last season but has shown improvement in the exhibition season and will be called on to play significant minutes. Other Pacers who could see a bump in playing time from a season ago include seniors Kinley Branch and Shane Porchea. Both are athletic and big enough to play in the paint but are at their best on the perimeter. Porchea is a slasher who can break down defenses and drive to the basket while Branch is a good shooter who can stretch defenses.

Another player from last season who will be counted on to make significant contributions again is forward Santoine Butler. The ultra-athletic 6-8 forward hasn’t played during the exhibitions because of a disciplinary issue. Alexander said he expects to have the high-flying Butler back for the start of the season but won’t allow the player who averaged 12.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game last season to play until he lives up to his expectations.

While Butler’s long-term absence would have an adverse affect on the Pacers, they’re buoyed by the return of big men Alvin Brown and Rick Alderman. The 6-10 Brown hasn’t played the past two seasons but was a force to be reckoned with during his only year in a USCA uniform. Brown was the PBC Defensive Player of the Year for the 2010-11 campaign, when he averaged 8.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game.

Alexander is tempering his expectations for Brown, knowing he’s been rusty in his return to this high level of play, and it will take him time to readjust.

Alderman is returning after sitting out last season with an injury. At 6-6, the senior is undersized compared to most of his opponents but he’s scrappy, aggressive and has a knack for scoring in the paint. Alexander said Alderman was his best player at the end of the 2011-12 season, when he averaged 6.0 points and 2.9 rebounds per game.

The Pacers also have the versatile Derrick Scott as well as sophomore transfers Hendrix Emu and Gavin Stephenson coming off the bench. They’ll be part of a group that has lots of scoring potential but will win games with defense. Alexander said he’ll primarily employ man-to-man but will frequently switch to full-court pressure and half-court traps.

The Pacers will get to display their skills when play their first regular-season game on Friday. That’s when they face P.R.-Bayamon in the first of three games they’ll play this weekend in Puerto Rico in the Mayaguez Basketball Classic.

It’s what they hope is the first steps in a run to another Elite Eight and beyond. Zimmerman said last year’s experience was great but also serves as inspiration for this season.

“Making the Elite Eight is motivation. We were three games away from a national championship,” he said. “This team is very talented. Sometimes we don’t play as hard as we need, but we have the ability to win a national championship.”

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.

2013-14 USC Aiken Men’s Basketball Roster

0 Hendrix Emu G So. 6-5 195

1 Derrick Scott G/F Sr. 6-9 200

2 Santoine Butler F Sr. 6-8 200

3 Gavin Stephenson G So. 6-3 190

4 DeVontae Wright G Sr. 6-0 180

5 Shane Porchea G Sr. 6-5 210

10 Kinley Branch G Sr. 6-6 205

11 Grant Harris G So. 6-1 170

13 Ronald Zimmerman G Sr. 6-0 170

14 Paul Larsen F Sr. 6-6 225

15 Rick Alderman F Sr. 6-6 220

23 Jesse Seilern G Sr. 6-3 190

32 Alvin Brown F Sr. 6-10 210

2013-14 USC Aiken Men’s Basketball Schedule

Friday vs. P.R.-Bayamon @ Mayaguez, Puerto Rico* 7:30 p.m.

Saturday vs. P.R.-Rio Piedras @ Mayaguez* 11 a.m.

Sunday vs. P.R.-Mayaguez @ Mayaguez* 3 p.m.

Nov. 12 Allen 7 p.m.

Nov. 15 Tuskegee 7 p.m.

Nov. 22 vs. Rollins @ St. Leo, Fla. 4 p.m.

Nov. 23 at Saint Leo 4 p.m.

Dec. 2 at Tuskegee 7 p.m.

Dec. 7 at Mount Olive 2 p.m.

Dec. 14 at UNC Pembroke 3:30 p.m.

Dec. 16 Francis Marion 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 21 at King (Tenn.) 3 p.m.

Jan. 4 Columbus St. 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 11 at Montevallo 4:30 p.m.

Jan. 15 at Clayton St. 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 18 Young Harris 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 20 North Georgia 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 22 at Georgia College 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 25 at Francis Marion 3:30 p.m.

Jan. 29 at Flagler 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 1 GRU Augusta 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 5 Lander 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 8 Armstrong 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 12 Flagler 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 15 at Lander 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 19 Ga. Southwestern 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 22 at Armstrong 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 26 at GRU Augusta 7:30 p.m.

Mar. 1 UNC Pembroke 7:30 p.m.

* 2013 Mayaguez Basketball Classic