By Doug Gorman
When Clayton College and State University men's basketball coach Gordon Gibbons arrived on the Morrow campus four years ago, he talked about turning the Lakers into a national Division II power.
If the so-called experts are correct, Clayton State might just be on the verge of fulfilling one of Gibbons' first goals.
Street and Smith, a nationally known preseason college basketball magazine, has ranked Clayton State 9th in its annual Division II preseason poll.
It's the highest preseason ranking school history.
A year ago, Gibbons' club finished with a 22-8 overall record, and now, with a veteran group of starters returning to the lineup and a top-notch recruiting class ready to contribute, the Lakers are hoping to compete for a Peach Belt title and a spot at the national tourney.
The Lakers join fellow Peach Belt Conference rival and defending NCAA Division II national champion Kennesaw State in the preseason rankings. The Owls enter the preseason ranked fourth.
"I like being nationally ranked," said Gibbons, who will officially start his fourth basketball season with the Lakers a week from Friday when the team holds its first practice. "When you are a high level NCAA Division II team, people know who your are when you get ranked. That was my goal when I came here."
Gibbons had an immediate impact on the Clayton State basketball team when he took over four seasons ago, leading the team to a Peach Belt Conference regular-season title in his first season. His club has won 58 games during the last three seasons. Last season Gibbons won his 300th game as a Division II coach.
Senior center B.J. Puckett is listed as an All-America candidate by the magazine and is one of the Lakers key returning starters. A year ago, Puckett averaged 12.5 points per game and pulled down just over 6 rebounds.
Senior Craig Butts, a returning starter at forward for the Lakers, started all 30 games last season, averaging 12.2 points per game and 7.1 rebounds. Darrien Chavis averaged 9.5 points per game and finished with 12 double-figure games.
Sophomore Aristide Sawandogo is back for his second season with the Lakers. The native of Burkina Fasco, Africa was still learning the college game last year, but with his 7-foot-1-inch frame, he is expected to have more of an impact this year.
Gibbons also signed three players with impressive basketball resumes, including former Lovejoy standout Michael Sloan. Sloan helped the Wildcats to three straight trips to the state tournament, and finished second in career scoring behind Jason Floyd, who played at Georgia Tech.
Also signing was T.J. Weldon, a Division I transfer from Old Dominion, and Maxi Rios from Agentina.
With Kennesaw winning the NCAA Division II title, and Clayton State nationally ranked, Gibbons said he believes the Peach Belt Conference has risen to a level of national respect.
"I think we have surpassed some of the other leagues in the time I have been here, Gibbons said."There have been some excellent coaching hires, and with what Kennesaw State did, that says it all about this league as a basketball conference.."
Clayton State opens its season with a an exhibition game against Baseline on November 1, and then begins playing games that count in the standings later in the month when it plays is the Disney Tipoff Classic in Orlando.