CONWAY — There is a small, nondescript piece of tape on the door to coach Cliff Ellis’ new office inside The HTC Center with his name scrawled in simple handwriting to let visitors with keen eyesight know this is where the head coach can be found.
When asked earlier this week about the makeshift nameplate, Ellis just laughed. After all, he’s had a lot more pressing priorities over the last month.
His Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team opens the season with three of its toughest non-conference games back-to-back-to-back – starting with the season opener and the Chanticleers’ debut inside their new arena Friday night against Akron.
“We’re on our fourth week of practice and we’ve improved a lot, but it gets to be the real deal,” Ellis said. “We’re a new team, an inexperienced team in the frontcourt, so to speak, and it’s a team that will make progress as the year goes. And we get great tests right off the bat. ... We’ve got three of our toughest games right off the bat. For our team, which is this young, it is going to be a great challenge.”
Road games at Ole Miss and Tennessee Tech, which defeated Coastal last season in Conway, await next week, but first it’s the Zips.
Akron finished 22-12 last season, winning the Mid-American Conference’s regular-season championship, and has posted seven straight 20-win seasons under head coach Keith Dambrot. More to the point, the Zips boast four returning starters and an especially experienced 7-foot senior center in senior Zeke Marshall, the reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year who has made 97 career starts and tallied 246 career blocks.
The Chants’ starting forward and center combo of freshman Michel Enanga and junior El Hadji Ndieguene have made zero combined starts at the Division I level.
Due to losing a pair of key seniors and the unexpected offseason transfer of starting forward Sam McLaurin to Illinois, Coastal is starting over in the frontcourt – and starting with quite a test.
“I think we’re athletic. The one thing I want us to do every night is defend and rebound,” Ellis said. “I think we’ll make offensive mistakes because it’s kind of like a cake – we’re trying to get it in the oven and make it all come out right. It takes time to do that – [four] weeks is not enough time. But definitely we can play hard, we can rebound and that’s going to be non-negotiable. We’ve got to be able to do that.”
Enanga has been the most impressive of Coastal’s six healthy newcomers – including five freshmen – through the preseason, while the 6-foot-10 Ndieguene joins the program from the junior college ranks.
“I think they’re going to give us some help down there,” senior guard Anthony Raffa said. “I mean, they’re great defensively and they can score. So we’re going to try to mix [them] into the flow. We’re just going to play basketball.”
Raffa, who led the team in scoring at 16.7 points per game last season, and senior point guard Kierre Greenwood, entering his fourth season as a starter, give this Chants team some familiarity from past years.
But that’s about it as the team moves into The HTC Center, leaving cramped Kimbel Arena behind and embarking on a new chapter for the program.
“I’m going to be focused on my team, [but] I hope that the atmosphere is like Kimbel,” Ellis said. “It’s about three and a half, four times bigger, but I think people should be excited about coming in here. This is Division I basketball at a premium. You’ve got a team coming in here that just flat-out knows how to play, and it’s going to take that sixth-man, that crowd excitement to help these young guys kind of get over the hump.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.