Charleston Southern opened its defense of last year's Big South regular season championship with its first preseason practice on Friday afternoon at the Buc Dome.
CSU won 19 games for a second consecutive season in 2012-13, and competed in postseason play for the second time in program history with a berth in the NIT. Ninth-year head coach Barclay Radebaugh and his veteran team is hoping for more in 2013-14 as the Bucs chase a Big South Tournament title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
With the season opener six weeks away, the focus for Radebaugh and company is simple.
"As you come into the locker room, we have the word finish," Radebaugh said in referencing CSU's loss to Liberty in last season's Big South Tournament Championship. "We feel like we didn't finish what we started last year and we're really determined to finish this year."
"Last year was a great year," Radebaugh continued. "It was a tremendous honor to compete in the NIT and a great step in the right direction, but last year is over and we want to make sure that we don't rest on our accolades from last year. It's a new season. We're really hungry to finish what we started."
CSU has extra time to prepare for the season ahead, as an NCAA rule change now allows for 30 preseason practices to be spaced out over 42 days, instead of the previously stipulated 30. The Bucs will take advantage of the time by practicing Monday through Friday, leaving the weekend for recuperation.
The Bucs are being installed by many as the Big South favorite in 2013-14, and a major reason for that is their junior backcourt of Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper. Nimley earned a spot on the All-Big South First Team last season, while Harper was named to the second team. Neither is particularly concerned about the label of favorite.
"We know we have a target on our back but it's not really a big deal to us," said Nimley, who led CSU in scoring and posted six double-doubles last season. "We're just going to come out and play like we know how to play basketball. We're not worried about being the favorites or winning championships right now. It's about molding and getting that chemistry to the point where we know we'll be playing really well late in the year."
Senior center Allie Fullah is the Bucs' other returning starter, while juniors Paul Gombwer and Cedrick Bowen add to an experienced frontcourt. In the backcourt, CSU features outstanding depth behind Nimley and Harper. Sheldon Strickland – an All-Big South Freshman performer in 2010-11 – returns for his senior season, as does Matt Kennedy, a West Ashley High School product that gave the Bucs valuable minutes off the bench late last year. Sophomore Malcolm Bernard also showed glimpses of his athleticism and overall ability as a freshman.
"We have a veteran team and they acted like it all summer," Radebaugh said of his upperclassmen. "Our guys are really committed and focused. They're an easy group to coach. We believe a coach-led team has a ceiling. A player-led team has opportunities that are limitless, and we have a player-led team."
Junior college transfer Will Saunders leads the way for CSU's newcomers, as he tries to fill the void left by the graduation of Mathiang Muo. Like Muo, Saunders comes to Charleston Southern from College of Central Florida with a reputation as a great shooter with good size. The 6-7 London, England native averaged better than ten points a game and shot nearly 41 percent from three-point range in helping College of Central Florida to the NJCAA Division I National Championship.
Freshman Tre Smith arrives at CSU as the most heralded of a rookie group that includes forward Bakari Copeland and forward/center Ty'Quan Biting. Smith averaged 25 points a game last season at Hillcrest High School and was named the South Carolina 4A Player of the Year. All will fight for minutes on a deep Bucs' roster that is poised to take the next step forward in 2013-14.
"We're going to take it one day at a time," said Radebaugh of handling the expectations. "We feel like we have a good basketball team. We're not running from the fact that we have a good basketball team. We're not running from the fact that we're the favorite. Can we be a great basketball team? Can we eclipse that and can we take another step toward being great?"
CSU will hold a Blue-Gold scrimmage that is open to the public next Saturday, October 5 at 2 p.m following the football game against North Greenville. The Bucs open the season on Friday, November 8, hosting Johnson University (Tenn.) in an 8 p.m. tipoff at the Buc Dome.
"We get the chance to come together and build the chemistry with more time to work on our offense and our defense. It's just a lot more time to be together as a team and get better."
"It's not really anything that I don't put on our team. Everyone expects us to win and we expect us to win. It's not much more pressure than we already put on ourselves. We feel like we can be a great team and everyone in the locker feels that way so we just have to go out there and try to keep getting better."