The easy answer is team defense.
Having two of the top scorers from last year's team, including an all-state selection, plus another all-division player doesn't hurt.
But there's a bigger reason why the Central Lakes College Raiders men's basketball team entered a tough weekend stretch with an 8-0 record and ranked fifth in the NJCAA Division III poll.
Sure, the Raiders are holding opponents to a Minnesota College Athletic Conference-best 55.6 points per game, which is 10 fewer than any other team in the state. They are also the second-best scoring team behind only Vermilion at 91.3 points per game.
But there is a better reason why the Raiders are one of the state's top teams.
"You don't come in here and expect to be 8-0 and ranked fifth in the nation without having leaders, and they understand that," said Raiders head coach Jim Russell. "They understand what their jobs are and what they are supposed to do, but that's what builds the character of the team. Our character has been pretty good."
The they Russell is referring to are sophomore point guard Marcus Ayala, sophomore shooting guard Nash Faulk and sophomore defensive stopper Marcus McDonald.
The three couldn't be any different on paper. McDonald hails from South Daytona, Fla. His strength is defense and he understands his role on the court. Off it, McDonald is referred to as the preacher.
"No matter what the issue, whether it is family, school or if they just need somebody to talk to you, I'm there for them," said McDonald.
Faulk led the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted Lakers to third place in the Class 2A state title his senior year in high school. Since then he's been the Raiders' leading scorer.
Off the court: "If anyone needs help in school, I'll be there to help them and to just talk," said Faulk.
Ayala is the coach on the floor.
"I'm a floor leader and an offensive threat," said Ayala. "If they're pressuring on me then Faulk will be open or someone else will be open. Also, I need to set up the offense and make sure everyone is in the same defense."
Those are their roles. According to Russell, the three excel at them. It's helped make the transition smooth for the Raiders, who sport 10 new faces on this year's roster.
"We knew at the time that if these guys got along and learn to play at a certain level that we would be pretty good," said Russell. "As a coach, the best part about having these guys is that they all come from different areas and backgrounds.
"Then when you have a goofy head coach who can put all three of them together, it's something you never forget as a coach. They really have put things together, not just on the basketball court, but off it as well."
Numbers do the talking in sports and they aren't absent in this situation either. In eight games, Faulk was averaging 17 points for third in the MCAC. Ayala is the state's seventh-leading scorer, averaging 15.5 points to go with a league-leading 6.0 assists per game and 3.9 steals a game, which is second. McDonald doesn't score much, but he's fourth in steals.
"Defense is huge here and especially when you see a guy like Marcus (McDonald) shutting down a guy the whole game that gets everybody excited on defense," said Faulk. "When I first got here out of high school, I was not a good defender. Russell really worked on that with me and it's really helped a lot. I feel like I've become a lot better defender.
"I never really thought about defense as much, but now I really do think about it a lot and how it helps the team. It's just a big part of the game."
Because of his improved defense, Faulk has peaked the interest of four-year college coaches, Russell said. So has Ayala, who earned all-state and all-North Division honors last year.
The young man from Arizona is confident in his talents, but more confident in his teammates.
"When I got here I was hoping we would be good and go at a much faster pace than in high school," said Ayala. "In high school, I was mostly the guard, where here we have a bunch of guys who can do different things between the post and kicking it to the 3. Everyone is pitching in here. You're not going to have one 30-point scorer and the next guys will be at 10 points. It's spread out more and everyone does their role.
"We can be really good. I really don't expect us to lose at all this semester. Rochester will be our big test, but after we get over that hump, then we'll go undefeated."
While all three come from different parts of the country, they all arrived at CLC with strong support groups back home. While McDonald and Ayala rarely see their families, they've found an extended family at CLC.
"It's been a blast," said McDonald, a youth minister with Journey North. "Coming in with these guys, and taking on new roles as leaders, it's fun. We have deep discussions about what we are going to do. It's never Marcus makes a decision by himself or Nash makes a decision by himself. It's always us making a decision together. We're all in this together."
Ayala and Faulk live together and agreed the most fun thing they do is argue.
"That's a good thing," said Faulk. "We like to do that. We like to hang out outside of basketball. The whole team hangs out."
Said Ayala: "If our homework is done then we're just eating and watching TV," Ayala said as a sarcastic smile set across his face for Russell to see. "That would be a beautiful day, that and arguing all day."
There is no arguing who will lead this year's Raiders deep in the playoffs.
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5856.