CONWAY — When Cliff Ellis and his coaching staff first started looking ahead to the 2012-13 basketball season in terms of recruiting, they knew they were going to need to replace veteran 6-foot-11 center Jon Pack and versatile 6-foot-7 forward Chris Gradnigo. They didn’t know they were also going to have to fill the void of three-year starting forward Sam McLaurin, who ended up transferring to Illinois in the offseason, but nonetheless their task was clear.
The Coastal Carolina basketball program needed to find some size and tenacity in the post and rebuild its frontcourt with an eye toward the future.
And when Ellis made a recruiting visit to Florida to watch prep forwards Michel Enanga and Badou Diagne play, he had some confidence the Chanticleers were well on their way in that regard.
“I knew, and I told our staff, I said, ‘These guys I would sign if I were at Clemson or Auburn,’” said Ellis, who coached previously at both schools. “I said, ‘If we can get them, I’m not saying they’re first-team All-SEC or first-team All-ACC, but I would sign those guys if I were there.’ And we got them. So I knew – I said, this is good.”
The Chants would sign Enanga and Diagne as well as 6-foot-10 junior college transfer El Hadji Ndieguene and two more incoming freshmen in 6-foot-7 Tristian Curtis and 6-foot-8 Uros Ljeskovic to address their frontcourt needs, and well, Coastal’s upcoming season will largely be determined by how well – and how quickly – those newcomers progress as Division I basketball rookies.
When Coastal opens a new season Friday night inside The HTC Center against a formidable Akron squad, Enanga and Ndieguene are expected to debut in the starting lineup with Diagne slated to play big minutes off the bench as part of this retooled Chants roster that, in general, has many wondering just how this team is going to look.
At this point, not even Ellis knows for certain – but he’s highly encouraged.
“I want to see where this group can go,” he said. “They will set a tone, and I’m sure that they’ll make mistakes and do all that. We’re throwing them into a big fire, we really are. ... But I like them. This team, hopefully they’re better in January, February, March than they are right now.”
Having won 75 games over the last three seasons and coming off a 19-12 finish in 2011-12, Coastal was picked second in the Big South Conference’s South Division in a preseason coaches and media poll thanks to the proven senior backcourt of senior point guard Kierre Greenwood and senior shooting guard Anthony Raffa.
Greenwood was tabbed a preseason second-team All-Big South pick after averaging 11.1 points and 5.0 assists last season, and he now enters his fourth year as a starter. Adept at penetrating through the lane and making plays for others, Ellis has said he expects Greenwood should be the top point guard in the conference.
Raffa, the ever-energetic spark who averaged a team-best 16.7 points last season, was a first-team preseason All-Big South selection and should be asked to carry an even greater share of the offensive burden now as a senior.
Those two have been instrumental in the recent surge of the program these last three years and they’ll have to be every bit as influential this season for the Chants to maintain the new standard they’ve set.
“Your leadership needs to lead by example on the floor and off, but on the court, if they’re not defending, if they’re not making cuts, if they’re not doing the right things then it sets the wrong example,” Ellis said. “I really always look to our leaders because they’ve been in the system. They’re seniors, they’ve got to set the tone.”
Beyond that ...
Sophomore Warren Gillis, a 6-foot-3 guard, moves into the starting lineup this year after averaging 15.3 minutes and 3.7 points as a rookie.
Ndieguene joins the Chants after playing a season at Lake Land College in Illinois. Ellis says his defense is ahead of his offense at this point and the Chants will hope he can be a consistent presence on that end of the floor.
And Enanga, the rookie from Montverde Academy in Florida, has drawn as much praise as any player on the team this preseason – from Ellis and teammates – with his work ethic, athleticism and versatile skill set.
“He plays great D, he hustles, he rebounds, he does everything a coach wants,” Raffa said of Enanga. “And for our team, he’s going to be a threat at the 4 position because he can step out, he can take you off the dribble, he can do a lot with his game.”
How it all adds up, well, that’s to be determined.
“Practice is one thing, but you’ll never really know until you get that game experience and that game feel to see how everything’s going to gel together,” Greenwood said. “But from practice, I’m going into this confident. I feel like we should be OK.”
When the Chants take the floor Friday night in their first game in The HTC Center – the long-awaited new home of Coastal basketball – they’ll start working toward what Ellis views as the next chapter for the program as he enters his sixth year at the helm.
All the while, the question remains: can these Chants and all their new pieces match the standard set by the teams of the past three seasons?
“They will,” Ellis said. “Now can they do it this year? I don’t know. I’m not going to put that pressure on them because they are young, but they will. I think this freshman group will have glory days. I do. Now, when that’s going to happen, I don’t know.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.