Assistant Sports Editor
BENNINGTON -- If there is one thing opponents know about the Mount Anthony Union High School boys basketball team it is senior Aaryngston Bibens, the Patriots' dynamic, double-double-waiting-to-happen guard.
The big question, one that MAU coach Dan Sleeman is eager to see answered and foes may find out the hard way, is just how much Bibens' supporting cast has developed on the court.
Sophomores and juniors when the Patriots -- who graduated just three seniors -- went 7-14 last winter, they get to showcase their growth in Saturday's season-opener at Rice, year-in, year-out one of the state's toughest squads.
"With Aary coming back, that draws a lot of attention because he's a very athletic, gifted kid and I think a big key is how much these other guys are going to step up and take a role," said Sleeman, who enters his 12th season in charge.
"We're still figuring things out, but I think an accurate assessment would be we're making slow, steady progress," Sleeman said.
Bibens posted 18 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists a game during his break-out junior season. The lone holdover from Mount Anthony's last Final Four squad in 2011 is upbeat about the outlook for his last season in Kates Gym.
"I personally think that we can get back to the Final Four this year," Bibens said. "It's a whole new feel. The chemistry is a big thing, I think, and everybody believes we can get that far."
Sleeman hopes the Patriots can develop an identity that doesn't rely on Bibens racking up draining minutes running the point every night as he did last year, which he finished as the team leader in points, rebounds assists and steals.
"Getting Mr. Bibens off the ball is one of the key things we have to figure out and [figure out] how long we can sustain him being off the ball playing another position," Sleeman said. "Him running the point for 32 minutes is not what I want."
The Patriots also return their second-leading scorer from 2011-12 with sharp-shooting junior Sean Brundage.
Brundage averaged nine points per game, draining 50 3-pointers (37.3 percent) in the process, and is one of several players who appear to have elevated their games in the off-season.
"I've seen a big improvement," Sleeman said. "I think Evan Sparta has improved big time. Sean Brundage is not such a one-dimensional player any more...
"A big surprise for me is Hao [Guo] -- he is just a steady, tough-as-nails defender and he'll be getting the toughest defensive assignments on the other teams."
Other players who figure to have an impact right away include junior swing-man James Levin, post players Jason Redden, Ben Gelheiser and Michael Plaisance, and guards Otis Selib and Ethan Anderson.
"I thought last year, because of some adversity we had, our identity never formed," Sleeman said. "Any team that's successful is going to have an identity."
One of the biggest reasons for the rare sub-.500 record last year was the Patriots' schedule, which included two games with two-loss Hoosick Falls, two games with Final Four participants Rutland and Burr and Burton Academy, three games with semifinalist Brattleboro, one game with Division I runner-up Rice and two games with D-II champ Mount St. Joseph, arguably Vermont's best squad.
The best part? That's past. And it's a brand-new season.
"I kinda let last year go once we got to the summer. We all pretty much sat down and said with this team we've got a shot, so we all worked hard [in the off-season," Bibens said. "Now it's time to go to work."