If there's a common theme around 2019-2020 Indiana high school basketball in the Wabash Valley as the games begin this week, it probably centers around one word: improvement.
The Vigo County teams, who will be previewed on Tuesday, combined for a 28-47 record. Teams from Clay, Parke, Sullivan and Vermillion counties were 142-164, and almost half their victories were achieved by sectional-winning teams from Linton (27-4), Bloomfield (20-8) and North Vermillion (20-9). Without those three teams, the non-Vigo teams in the Valley were 75-143, winning slightly fewer than 35% of their games.
But look back and remember the theme. A great majority of the teams in the Valley are going to be improved this season, some of them by a lot. Here's why.
Western Indiana Conference
• Northview — Just 6-17 overall and 1-4 in conference games last year, the Knights could have an all-returnee starting five led by 6-4 junior Caleb Swearingen, 6-3 seniors Cade Bryan and Carson Gettle, 6-0 junior Brevin Cooper and 6-0 senior Tyler Hess.
"We're an older and more experienced team," said coach Michael Byrum. "I really like the balance of our roster."
• Sullivan — Coach Jeff Moore's Golden Arrows were just 12-13 overall last year, but had just one senior (guard Ben Pirtle) on the roster.
That means the rest of the Arrows should be back, starting with 6-3 senior Kevin Figg; one of the best players in the Valley, Figg averaged 20.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last year. Sophomore Randy Kelley was another double-figure scorer last year as a freshman, and there's size to go with the experience.
• Among the other West teams, last year's division winner Greencastle graduated big Gavin Bollman but will have junior Brody Whitaker back to run the show; South Putnam will be without star Allen Plunkett; and North Putnam was in the cellar of a closely packed division. In the East, Edgewood still has junior Trevor Taylor, starting for his third year, but is without sparkplug Joe Kido, and Owen Valley — a sectional winner last year — has another three-year junior star in Stephen Atkinson. Sophomore Kyle Thomas makes Cloverdale dangerous too.
SouthWestern Indiana Athletic Conference
• Bloomfield — J.B. Neill returns to his Greene County coaching roots after considerable success at Edgewood. Graduation losses were significant, but four-year starter Turner Royal leads the way for some promising newcomers.
• Clay City — Coach Chris Ames' Eels were in the first division of the conference despite a 10-14 overall record and has a strong senior nucleus returning in Hunter Adams, Caden Cannon, Jacob LaFary, Nathan Owens, Bryce Patterson and Ethan Rogers.
"The SWIAC is loaded with good teams and players," Ames said. "We're going to have to rebound, defend and take care of the ball just to be able to compete."
• Linton — Coach Joey Hart is also hoping for a little bit of improvement. His Miners came within a minute or two of the Class 2A state championship.
Four of Linton's six-man nucleus graduated, but the two returnees are junior Lincoln Hale, probably the most recruited player in the Valley, and senior Kip Fougerousse, an Indiana University baseball signee. Josh Pyne, who had some big postseason plays a year ago and who is also a Division I baseball prospect, heads a list of returning reserves and the freshman class is expected to have as many as three varsity contributors.
• North Central — Coach Vance Edmondson's Thunderbirds were last in the league last winter but their 5-18 overall record was a small step upward.
Bryton Suggs and James Roberts could be the building blocks for more improvement this year, and so could 6-4 sophomore Trevor Hadley.
• Shakamak — Coach Nate O'Neall's Lakers were 6-20 last year and finished one spot ahead of North Central.
John Gould and Devin Steinstra are veterans O'Neall should be able to count on, and sophomore Coy Gilbert showed promise last winter.
• White River Valley — Senior point guard Tanner Denham and junior forward Andrew Ellett are veterans as coach James Darren Floyd's Wolverines look to better last year's 8-16, 2-5 records.
• North Daviess went 18-7 and lost only to Linton and Bloomfield in conference play and will be dangerous again, led by Kirk Wagler. Eastern Greene was 8-16 and 3-4.
Wabash River Conference
• North Vermillion — The Falcons' streak of four consecutive sectional titles could be in jeopardy after the graduation of nine seniors from last year's team, but first-year coach Cody Wright says he has "a hard-working class of senior leaders along with a great supporting class of underclassmen."
Wright may be the youngest head coach in Indiana high school basketball, by the way. He was the quarterback when the Falcons won the 2014 Class A football championship.
• Parke Heritage — Looking for a darkhorse? Try the Wolves, who were more dangerous last year than their 8-16 record indicated.
Led by 6-4 junior Connor Davis, already a two-time all-WRC player, the Wolves also have 6-2 senior Logan White, 6-7 senior J.T. O'Brien, 6-2 senior Jaylen Crull, 5-9 senior Austin Petrillo, 6-2 junior Riley Ferguson and 6-2 sophomore Noble Johnson (currently injured) back to go with a promising group of newcomers.
"We have a nice mix of experience and youth and we should have great depth once we get everyone healthy," said coach Rich Schelsky, who does have to replace the points produced the last four years by Landon Newnum.
• Riverton Parke — The Panthers, 8-17 last year, also have plenty of pieces back: seniors Alex Atkinson, Logan Harrison, Brandon Hazzard, B.J. Hopton and Garrett Lawson and junior Pierson Barnes.
"We should have the size and athletes to compete in every game," coach Mitch Simmons said. "They shouldn't see anything that they haven't seen before."
• South Vermillion — Brice Gilman, John Piper and Connor VanLannen are the top veterans returning for coach Shawn Nevill, whose Wildcats were 12-12 last year and who outscored Terre Haute North in a preseason scrimmage on Friday.
"I think we have a good core one through 12," Nevill said. "We may be as deep as we have every been. If we can develop some leadership I like where we could end up."
No matter how much Terre Haute North and Terre Haute South improve this season — the Patriots were fourth and the Braves sixth last year — they won't have the pressure of being considered contenders for the conference championship.
Bloomington South, led by Indiana's all-time leader in coaching victories, J.R. Holmes, has most of the pieces back — including Indiana University recruit Anthony Leal — from a 24-4 team that swept its conference schedule. Columbus North and Southport also have talent — the Cardinals less talent than they had about a week ago, however — and Bloomington North was much better than its 13-8 record last year.