The Mark Twain boys basketball team is prioritizing defense to reach the next level under coach Cody McCann.

Cody McCann has a unique perspective on how to help the Mark Twain boys basketball team reach the next level.

The first-year Tigers head coach remembers how opponents exploited Mark Twain during his stint as an assistant at Eastern Missouri Conference rival Clopton.

Now McCann has the opportunity to solve the problem.

“We've got to improve our defense,” McCann said. “I got to coach against these guys last year, and one thing they definitely need to improve on is defense. And we have, especially from the beginning of the summer until now. We're running constantly and conditioning ourselves so that we can play a full game and play defense all four quarters.”

McCann shared his assessment with the Tigers shortly after taking over the program. His challenge only fueled the senior-laden Tigers heading into their season opener at Paris next Tuesday.

“We've been pushed real hard this year, which is great,” said senior Grant Peters, a 6-foot-7 center. “Last year we lost a lot of games because we weren't in shape and we weren't running up and down the floor. We got tired, but the other team was fine. That was unacceptable.” 

Mark Twain finished 9-15 a year ago with 11 losses coming by 13 points or fewer.

“A lot of games last year were close, single-digit games,” McCann said. “Just being in shape can change that and give us a chance to win all those ballgames.”

Senior point guard Devin Neff took last season's close outcomes personally.

“I'm going to admit, my defense has not been a strong point the couple years I've been playing, but I feel like this is my year for defense and I can keep working and pushing myself,” the all-state cross country runner said. “Our intensity has picked up on defense, definitely.” 

Mark Twain enters the campaign without graduated standouts Bailey McMillen and Brad Tonkinson, who combined to average 23 points per game last season. 

McCann is confident new leaders will step up. 

“It's going to be hard to replace them, but I think with the guys we have they're ready to step in and fill those shoes,” he said.

Peters is back as a force in the post after averaging 11 points and seven rebounds, providing a high-low partnership with Neff, who led the Tigers with nearly four assists per game. 

“I expect Grant (Peters) to average a double-double every night,” Neff said. “For where he wants to be at and what he wants to do, I expect him to average a double-double and I'm going to try and do my best to get him there.” 

Neff serves as the engine that will make Mark Twain go, according to McCann. 

“If he can get us into our offense, we'll be good,” the coach said.

Joining Peters and Neff for significant minutes will be senior forwards Conner Grossmann and Aidan Epperson as well as up-and-coming sophomore guards Jace Barton and Preston Eckler. 

Cash Caldwell and Corbin Eckler round out the senior class, while Kaden Elliot provides depth as a junior guard and Brayden McLeod returns as a versatile option off the bench.

“A lot of them come with experience and they've been playing at the varsity level the past few years, so that's definitely going to help for leadership,” McCann said of his team.

While Mark Twain's emphasis throughout the preseason has been shoring up defense, the Tigers are confident in their offense, too. 

“Every person on the floor is a threat,” Peters said. “You can't double team one person, you can't triple team one person, you have to go one-on-one. That forces matchups and it's hard to guard.”