By Doug Gorman
As Clayton State head coach Gordon Gibbons prepares to enter his third season at the helm of the Lakers' men's basketball program, expectations have never been as high.
After winning the regular-season Peach Belt title two years ago, and finishing with a respectable 17-12 overall mark last season, the Lakers are starting to garner some national recognition, including being listed as one of the top-25 NCAA Division II programs by Street and Smith magazine.
Area basketball fans will get a chance to see what all the fuss is about tonight when the Lakers play host to Baseline USA at 7:30 p.m. in the first of two exhibition games on the Morrow campus.
On paper, this could be Gibbons' best team since he arrived at CCSU three years ago after a highly successful stint at Florida Southern. The veteran coach, who has a career college coaching record of 286-86, has assembled a nucleus of talented players, including three starters, three returning players and five signees, who are expected to also have an impact.
"We have been able to upgrade our talent and we definitely have quality depth," Gibbons said. "Those were the two things that I had hoped to bring to the program when we got here."
One of Gibbons' first tasks this season is replacing starters Jamal Johnson, who averaged 15 points per game last year, and center Mike Phenizee, who started nearly 56 straight games at center.
Former Mt. Zion standout Lamar Rodgers is expected to start at one of the guard spots for Lakers. A year ago, Rodgers was the team's top 3-point shooter and averaged 9.3 points per game.
Rodgers has emerged as one of the team's leaders since arriving on the CCSU campus. He calls Gibbons a great motivator, who always has the Lakers ready to play.
"The chemistry on this team is really good," he said. "Coach Gibbons has so much energy, he brings everything out of us."
Guard Kevin Young, who started 21 games for the Lakers a year ago, and forward Jason Byrd are also listed as starters.
Senior forward Craig Butts was one of the first players off the bench a year ago, shooting 50 percent from the field.
Gibbons went out and hit the recruiting trail hard, adding size and experience to the the 2003-2004 roster.
Aristide Sawadogo, a 7-foot-1 freshman from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Africa, and B.J. Puckett will be counted on to keep opponents in check from the defensive end. A year ago, Clayton State held teams to 40 percent shooting.
Colorado State transfer Darien Chavis, Carlton Homes, and Rashad Williams are other junior college transfers expected to via for playing time.
Stephen Cox and Leon Parker saw limited playing time last year, and return to the Lakers this season. The Lakers play another exhibition game on Friday, Nov. 7 against VASADA, before opening the season for real at home against Southeastern at home on Saturday, Nov 15.
Clayton State won't open its Peach Belt Conference season until January, but there's plenty of competition to get the Lakers ready for league play.
"Our schedule in the first month and a half, we have road games against Johnson C. Smith, we play Wingate on a neutral court, Albany State on the road and West Georgia at home and on the road, so we are really going to be tested," Gibbons said.
Gibbons' club is ready to get started and prove they are worthy of the pre-season accolades.
"We have some really high expectations, coming into this year," said Butts. "We have some new players with some really good backgrounds, but we have quality players coming back. We have worked hard in the off season, so we feel we have a much better team that last year."
A year ago, CCSU let a couple of games get away. Young doesn't expect to let that happen this year.
"Last year we lost about eight games right there that we had a chance to win," Young said. "This year with our experience, I don't think we are going to let too many games slip away."
Clayton State could find itself in a battle with Columbus and Kennesaw State for the Peach Belt Conference title. However, Gibbons said he believes another team or two could have a chance to sneak into the title mix.
"The sleepers I think are Armstrong, Spartanburg and North Florida," said Gibbons.
"I think those three can do some damage. Francis Marion lost of some really close games last year and they bring everybody back, so they could make things interesting."