From Staff Reports
The 2003-04 Clayton College & State University men's basketball team learned earlier this week that it has the respect of its Peach Belt Conference rivals, as the Lakers were picked to finish third in the 12-team league by a vote of the conference's respective coaches.
The Lakers, who were also picked earlier this preseason in the Street & Smith's national Division II Top 25, were picked among the top three teams in the conference for the second straight season by the PBC coaches after winning the league title in 2002 and capturing a top-five finish last year.
"It's nice when your program has the respect of your peers," said head coach Gordon Gibbons. "We are excited with our preseason national ranking. Everybody is looking forward to this season."
Peach Belt South Division rivals Columbus State University and Kennesaw State University were picked first and second in the poll. Armstrong Atlantic State University and Augusta State University trailed Clayton State tying for fourth, while the University of North Florida rounded out the top five.
Five of the top six teams selected in the poll was from Clayton State's South Division.
After winning the Peach Belt Conference Championship in 2001-02, the Lakers proved in 2002-03 that the conference title wasn't a fluke, winning 17 games.
The Lakers were only a few "breaks" away of having another special season, dropping two games last year in overtime and seven games by five points or less with nine new players.
Third-year head coach Gordon Gibbons' impact on the Clayton State program has been an immediate one, and under his leadership and in two short seasons, he has led the program to 36 wins, including 28 Peach Belt Conference victories.
The program had a 24-40 record in PBC play the prior four seasons.
With three returning starters, seven letterwinners and five national-caliber recruits, the Lakers will try to keep the tradition alive and take the next step in 2003-04.
Clayton State returns six seniors from last year's playing rotation in guards Kevin Young (Marietta, GA), Lamar Rodgers (Jonesboro, GA) and Jason Byrd (Brooksville, FL) to go along with seniors Craig Butts (Savannah, GA), Manny Parker (Miami, FL) and Stephen Cox (Peachtree City, GA) to the frontcourt.
Young led the 2002-03 squad in assists and will play both guard positions this year.
Rodgers, a three-year letterwinner, is the team's top perimeter shooter and led the club last year in 3-point field goal percentage, hitting over 40 percent from behind the arc. Byrd, one the most athletic players on the team, led all Peach Belt guards in rebounding last year.
Butts was one the team's most productive players, averaging eight points in only 15 minutes a game. Anchored by the presence of the two biggest incoming recruits in school history, 6-foot-9 junior college All-America center B.J. Puckett (Auburn, GA) and freshman 7-foot-1 center Aristide Sawadogo (Burkina Faso, Africa) Gibbons' squad will once again be among the top defensive squads in the nation. Last year, the Lakers ranked among the nation's leaders on the defensive end, holding teams to 40 percent shooting from the floor and under 65 points per game.
Puckett and Sawadogo will replace the inside presence of Mike Phenizee (Pittsburgh, PA), who started 56 straight games for the Lakers in the middle. Incoming guards Darien Chavis (Philadelphia, PA), a Division I transfer from Colorado State, and Rashad Williams (St. Petersburg, FL), an All-Region guard from ABAC, along with forward Carlton Holmes (Charlotte, NC), an All-Region performer from Spartanburg Methodist, will add quickness and offense to the squad, softening the loss of All-PBC and last year's leading scorer Jamal Johnson (Columbus, GA)
The 2003-04 team will be deeper and more athletic, suiting the program's up-tempo, pressing style.
The offense will also be stronger with the return of more than 50 percent of last year's scoring to go along with two prolific scorers added to the mix.
The NCAA Division II's third winningest coach, Gibbons has a good shot of reaching a milestone in 2003-04, as he is 18 wins shy of capturing his 300th victory. He captured his 250th win quicker than any other coach in Division II history.
Clayton State opened preseason practice on Wednesday, Oct. 15. Fans can get their first glimpse of the Lakers on Thursday, Oct. 23as the basketball program will have an intra-squad scrimmage in conjunction with 2003 homecoming activities. The team's first exhibition game of the season will be Monday, Nov. 3, against Baseline USA.