"We've got to play together, and we've got to play good defense," said senior center Alex Bush, echoing the themes of the Cats' 2005-06 season.
The Wildcats dropped to 5-20 last year and lost over two-thirds of their scoring with the graduation of guards Frank Middleton and Shawn Hoskins and center Jared Bryant.
"The main thing is to play as a team and play together," said second-year coach Jerry Ford. "We don't have any superstars on this team. We don't have anybody who can score 25 or 30 on a consistent basis.
"We've got a lot of kids who work hard, and if we play together and move the ball and play the game the right way, we'll find opportunities if we're patient."
Ford knows the Wildcats will have trouble matching their offensive output of recent seasons, which means they must do something about improving a defense that gave up almost 75 points per game last year.
"We have to get out there and guard somebody," he said. "You can't win giving up as many points as we did last year. We have to have help-side, and everybody has to be on the same page. You can't have two or three playing hard defense and then no help-side coming.
"Defense is important, but saying it and getting it done are two different things. We have to be committed to it."
Ford had trouble at times last year getting his team to adjust from the fast-paced style favored during Rick Parsons' four-year tenure.
"I feel a lot more comfortable this year. I think the players really understand what I want and how we do things," Ford said. "The biggest thing we have is discipline. There were a couple of kids I had to cut last year because they didn't want to come to practice. I told them they were done for this year, and they could try it next year.
"Those kids have been here all summer and every day. They got the message. Sometimes tough love is what they need."
Most of the Wildcats' experience is in the frontcourt, where Bush (3.7 points per game last year) and senior center Jamie Combs (8.2) return. Bush, a football standout, started most of the year in the post after Bryant went out early with an injury.
"Alex was probably our leading rebounder last year, but he didn't have confidence in his shot," Ford said. "I've noticed this year that he is going to the bucket more. He has to be more offensive-minded."
Combs is taking on a leadership role as the team's most experienced player.
"Jamie has been here for four years, and I'm proud of the way he plays. He's been playing hard, and he knows there is a lot on him," Ford said. "I don't think Jamie cares if he scores two or 20, as long as we get a win."
Dustin Mefford (9.3), a 6-0 senior guard who ranked third on the team in scoring last year, suffered a knee injury in the Wildcats' football playoff loss to Paintsville and is expected to be out until mid-December. Ford is counting on more offense from Mefford this year, which means an improved outside shot to go with his ability to get to the basket off the dribble.
"Dustin is a strong kid, he's quick and is a real good rebounder for a guard," Ford said. "With his strength, we'll have to play him some on the post."
The Wildcats lack experience in the backcourt, especially at point guard, where Hoskins started the past four years. Bryan Tompkins, a 5-10 sophomore, appears to be the leading candidate to take over the position.
"He handles the ball well, sees the floor well and understands his role. He has a head for basketball and understands how to play the game," Ford said.
Trevor Smith, a 5-9 sophomore, could also see action at point guard.
James Ledford (3.3), a 6-0 junior guard who played a key reserve role last season, will move into the starting lineup.
"I look for James to have a good year," Ford said. "I'm expecting him to be a leader on this team.
"He's improved as a shooter and has a quick move to the basket. James wants to win, and sometimes that gets the best of him."
Cody Farley, a 5-11 junior, and Jesse Farley, a 5-8 sophomore, will also compete for a starting job on the wing, especially while Mefford is out.
"Cody has a lot of athletic ability. He's quick and jumps well," Ford said. "Jesse is strong and plays smart."
Jarrod Fields, a 5-11 junior who is playing high school basketball for the first time, will also see action in the backcourt.
"He has a pretty good shot, but all he's played is street ball, and we're trying to get him out of some bad habits," Ford said.
Kyle Clark, a 6-3 senior center who was a standout on the football field, is being counted on to give Evarts depth in the post.
"He's a wonderful young man who will give you everything he's got," Ford said. "He hustles, rebounds well and runs the floor like a deer. I don't know how much he'll score, but he will play solid defense and rebound."
Ford tabs an experienced Harlan squad as the favorite in the 52nd District with newcomer Bell County a close second.
"Harlan is a talented and smart team, and (coach) Casey (Lester) has brought that team up from babies," Ford said. "They will be tough for anybody to beat in this district."
Competing with the district heavyweights will be a difficult task for the Cats, who Ford said will be assessed more on improvement than their record.
"This season, to me, is not going to be judged on wins and losses. We can't put that kind of pressure on ourselves," Ford said. "It's going to be judged by stepping out there every night and playing hard and competing together and playing the right way.
"We have a real good group. They listen and work hard. We're not the most gifted team in the region, but we'll play hard."
The Wildcats are going back to the basics in preseason workouts.
"We have to be fundamentally sound," Ford said. "We need to be patient and cut down on our turnovers.
"I've really been pleased with what I've seen so far. They try their best to do what I ask them to do. That's all I can ask for, to play hard and play together and play within our capabilities."