The beginning of the season is all about patience, Lakeville North boys' basketball coach John Oxton said. It can take time to develop team chemistry, to put in an offensive set, to get into "basketball shape," and for players to find their shooting strokes.

Patience, for any coach, is a great virtue, he said. For Oxton, though, it'll be a necessity this year.

The Panthers opened practice Monday missing five of what could be the top eight players in their rotation this season.

The defending Class 4A state champions will be without last year's leading scorer, J.P. Macura, now a freshman playing for Xavier. But Oxton simply shrugged off any worries.

After all, those five players are all healthy; they're just riding out a deep playoff run with the Panthers football team.

"It'll really be like [playing] two seasons this year," the coach said. "We're moving forward with everyone we have here. … We're doing everything, offensively and defensively, that we normally would. Then, when those guys get back from football, it'll just have to be a crash course for them.

"It's a long season. We'll be fine."

Easing the worry is the amount of talent the Panthers have coming back from their title team a year ago.

Senior forward Connor Flack is the team's captain and top returning scorer (12.5 points per game). Junior Drew Stewart will be back to run the offense at point guard. Last year's sixth man — guard Calven Pesola, who shot .500 from three-point range a year ago — is just a junior.

The Panthers will have to wait for all three players, though. Stewart is the starting quarterback, Flack a starting receiver and Pesola a reserve defensive back.

"It stinks knowing I'm not at practice," Flack said last week, before the Panthers played a state semifinal football game Thursday night. "Basketball practice is always so fun. I just love it. But I wouldn't trade where we're at for football. It's been amazing."

Oxton, who serves as an assistant coach for the football team, doesn't mind the overlap. He's used to it, he said. Besides, it certainly doesn't hurt for his players to gain more big-game experience, even if it does come in a different sport.

"They might be shaky early [in the basketball season], but it won't take them too long to adjust," he said.

In the meantime, Oxton is focusing on who is at the gym each day. He said seniors Jack Mettlach, Paul Juhnke, Austin Golberg, Isaac Brooks and Riley Paro will all get a chance to show what they can do early on.

When the team is at full strength, he doesn't see any reason the Panthers can't make a fourth consecutive trip to the state tournament.

"A lot of people see we lost [Macura] and say, 'Wow, he scored 1,000 points in a season, and how are they going to replace that?' " Oxton said. "He is a very big loss, but we have some very good players."

"We have guys who know what it takes, who've been there," he added. "I think the goal is to get back there, and then we'll take our chances with anybody."