Clayton State guard Tony Dukes, a former standout at Morrow, is the team’s second-leading scorer heading into Friday’s first round of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament.
MORROW — Gordon Gibbons has a team that is sitting right at .500, and one game below that percentage mark in conference play.
But when he allows his mind to travel back to the 2007-08 season, the veteran coach tends not to allow his current team’s record to dictate how far the current Clayton State squad can go.
“This is an exciting time of year for us,” Gibbons said. “I compare this team to our 2008 team. They were .500 in the league and that year we won four games in the conference tournament to win our tournament, and then we won our first two games in the Div. II tournament.”
Gibbons said the similarities run the gamut from players missing time with injuries to the way the Lakers are getting healthy and rebuilding its depth toward the end of the season and a tendency to surge around tournament time.
“Our teams traditionally play well during this time of year,” Gibbons said. “We’ve had some tough losses, but some great, great wins.”
Indeed Clayton State seems to be walking in its most consistent stride of the season. After a heartbreaking 89-88 overtime loss to Young Harris on Jan. 24, the Lakers have won six of their last nine games, and have begun to show flashes of some of Gibbons’ most successful postseason teams. Heading into the tournament on Friday, the Lakers are 13-13 overall and 9-10 in conference play.
“We’re playing our best basketball of the season right now,” Gibbons said.
And much of it coming from the defensive end.
Statistically, Clayton State has the Peach Belt’s best scoring defense, and are also boasting the conference’s defensive player of the year in senior Juron Dobbs.
All of which is good news as the Lakers prepare for its 1 p.m. first round conference tournament game against USC-Aiken on Friday at Columbus State.
Aiken (19-7, 15-4) boasts the best record in the conference and has, who Gibbons calls the best point guard in the league in Re’Mon Nelson.
To be sure, Gibbons does have some people who he feels he can count on as scorers on his team. Leading scorer Omari Murray is a slasher who averages 14.3 points per game. It’s his ability to penetrate the paint that opens up opportunities for senior and Morrow grad Tony Dukes to pitch in with 10.4 points a contest of his own.
Another key to Clayton State’s second half emergence has been the health of 6-foot-9 center Andrew Bachanov, who’s one rebound shy from averaging a double-double per game.
Bachanov missed the first 15 games of the season with an injury and, according to Gibbons, is starting to regain his confidence.
“When you’ve missed that many games, it takes some time to shake off the rust and get back into it again,” Gibbons said. “I think he’s definitely starting to do that. He gets a lot of his numbers through just pure hustle.”
For Gibbons, it will be his last postseason as Clayton State’s head coach. He informed the school earlier this season that he would be departing to pursue other opportunities.
In order for Clayton State to extend their coach’s season into the Division II national tournament, they will likely have to sweep the tournament — a feat that, while daunting, isn’t one Gibbons and his squad will shrink back from.
“I think we could possibly get in (the tournament) just by getting to our conference final,” Gibbons said. “But we really feel we’ll have to win it all in order to get in. And I’m fine with that. The way we’re playing right now, I’m fine with us wearing that moniker.”