By Doug Gorman
When Gordon Gibbons took over as men's basketball coach at Clayton State University four years ago, his task was clear-win games and turn the Lakers into a Peach Belt Conference contender.
With a 76-42 record since coming to Clayton State, both those goals have been realized.
As Clayton State heads into its 2005-06 opener tonight at home against Tuskegee University, expectations are again at a high level.
The Lakers come into the season as the preseason favorite to win the Peach Belt Conference title despite losing four starters from last year's team, which went 18-13 overall and 11-5 in league action.
This year, Clayton State is picked to win the league, which will have a new look to it.
Kennesaw State, which won the Division II national title in 2004 and was the Lakers' biggest conference rival, and North Florida have both moved to the Division I level.
North Georgia is the only school added to the league this season.
Still, there should be plenty of competition chasing the Lakers.
Columbus State, which went 23-9 last year, USC Upstate, the defending PBC champions, and Lander also received first-place votes in the preseason conference poll.
Gibbons doesn't mind the added pressure of being picked to win the league.
“You have to except it, particularly where we are,” he said. “Because we are trying to bring awareness to our program. That was part of our goal here in our first five years to build this thing up into a national power. I don't mind being picked to win, because you are going to get everybody's A game, but that's what you want.”
To win the conference title, Clayton State is going to have to win with a collection of new starters, including some former junior college all-stars.
Sophomore Michael Sloan, a former Lovejoy standout, is the only returning starter to the Lakers' lineup. Sloan played in all 31 games for the Lakers last year and shot 40 percent from the field.
He has been named a team captain for the Lakers as a sophomore.
Sloan will be joined in the starting lineup tonight by guard Todd McClain, a junior college transfer from Lenior Community College. The junior college all-american, is a prolific scorer. During his two years at the junior college level, he scored 1,500 points. The Lakers added a Division I transfer in guard Jeff Trotter, who began his college career at Robert Morris. The junior played at Creekside High School and is the school's leading scorer and rebounder.
John Beugnot, a forward from Lyon France, and seven-foot Aristide Sawadogo from Burkina Faso, Africa, are also projected to start in tonight's opener.
However, Gibbons has plenty of options coming off the bench. Also expected to see time are Donte Dawson, a three-year letter winner at Clayton State. A year ago, Dawson played in all 31 games.
T.J. Weldon, a senior, who transferred to Clayton State from Old Dominion in the 2003-04 season, missed part of last season with a leg injury, but played a key role down the stretch.
Senior guard Maxi Rios played in 24 games last season after also suffering an injury. Brandon Kelley is another junior college addition to the Lakers' lineup. Last year, he led Santa Fe Community College to a 26-4 record.
The Lakers also added some more height to the line up with 6-11 center Cedrick Kalombo. The resident of South Africa played one season at Fresno Community College where he helped the team to a 34-0 record by averaging 10 points and eight rebounds.
Clayton State has also added two former Morrow standouts to the roster as Rod Venner and Calvin Goss have transferred back home. Both players will redshirt this season, and won't see action until the 2006-07 season.
Tonight's game tips off at 7:30 and is a home-and-home series between the two schools. Clayton State makes the trek to Tuskegee Tuesday.
“We did something different this year,” Gibbons said. “We didn't have any exhibition games, instead we have had 28 practices, and I wanted that on this team because we did have 28 new guys. They are chopping at the bit to play. Tuskegee is in a good league, our guys know about Morehouse, Albany State, and Fort Valley, and they respect those teams. We certainly respect Tuskegee, and it will be a tough game.”