In his postgame news conference Wednesday night after his team had topped conference rival Liberty in the final seconds, Coastal Carolina basketball coach Cliff Ellis was asked how pleased he is by the growth of his team this season.
The Chanticleers, once considered something of an unknown with a rebuilt backcourt and a still very young frontcourt, had experienced their growing pains in the early going this season, but with its fifth win in the last six games Coastal had vaulted itself to the top of the division standings.
Ellis didn’t offer a verbal response to that question, instead just smiling wide and holding the pose for several seconds. But the next question wasn’t much different, and he relented.
"They’re growing. Six out of our top nine are underclassmen or first-year players. I mean, my gosh, show me in this league who we’re more experienced than," he said. "And for us to be where we are right now with that, I’m proud of them. ... I’m kind of a little giddy, but it’s a long way to go. It’s a long way to go."
And every game brings a new test in what has turned out to be a wide-open and deeply competitive Big South race. The next challenge for Coastal comes against one of the league’s other surprise teams, as North Division leader Campbell hosts the South Division-leading Chants at 11 a.m. Saturday in Buies Creek, N.C., before a live ESPNU audience.
"Here’s what you’ve got. You’ve got the leader in the North. ... You’ve got the leader in the South. I mean, I don’t know if they planned this when they set it up, but national television with the two division leaders are going at each other," Ellis said, building up the matchup.
It would have been hard to imagine anyone planning it like this even a few weeks ago.
Coastal (12-9, 5-2 Big South) opened conference play Jan. 8 with a one-sided 70-58 loss at Charleston Southern. Picked to finish third in the division, the Chants looked like a team still with a lot of growing to do after an up-and-down start to the season.
Campbell (11-11, 5-2), meanwhile, had been picked fifth out of six teams in the North Division in the Big South’s preseason coaches and media poll in their first season under head coach Kevin McGeehan.
But after starting 6-9 with a few easy non-Division I wins thrown in the mix, the Fighting Camels have found their stride, led by the emergence of junior Reco McCarter. The 6-foot-6 forward has been one of the best players in the league of late, averaging 18.0 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists over the last nine games.
"Reco McCarter’s game has just elevated a couple notches from where he was, and I think to be fair I think this is more what he’s capable of," McGeehan said. "I think earlier in the year he may have been pressing a little bit. His confidence has continued to grow. ... He’s got a different aura about him on the court, and he’s difficult to guard when he’s zeroed in."
And with his emergence has come that of the Camels.
McGeehan said he does see some similarity in his team and the Chants, in terms of their strong starts.
"I knew nobody would think we would be able to do much just because of the losses of last year’s group, but I believed with the attitude and effort I was getting and the talent level we had that we could be pretty good. It just kind of depended on how the guards came along," he said.
"I’m sure that’s similar to how Cliff felt. So much fell on his guards last year with [Anthony] Raffa and [Kierre] Greenwood being such good players, but he probably felt good about the guys he had coming back and what he had coming in, and it’s just how quickly are they going to come together and pick up what you’re trying to do. I think Coastal has done very similar as a surprise team. I don’t think the coaches are ever really surprised, but media and people that evaluate teams can be surprised."
The Chants have found their rhythm with strong play from the three guard spots, led by the emergence of freshman standout Elijah Wilson (team-high 16.0 points per game), new junior point guard Josh Cameron (14.5 points per game) and steady junior Warren Gillis (13.1 points per game) while getting just enough game to game from their stable of post players.
Like McGeehan said, though, the Chants aren’t surprised internally by their standing nearing the midway point of the conference season, but they understand others might have a different perspective.
"I think they may be surprised, but we are not," senior center El Hadji Ndieguene said of outside perception. "We know we have a good team. Last year we had the talent, but it was a lack of experience."
And along with that growing experience has come a burgeoning sense of confidence.
After Gillis hit the game-winner in that 66-64 win over Liberty on Wednesday night, he reflected back over this six-game stretch in which the Chants’ only loss came by one point in overtime to Winthrop.
That, he said, reminds the team what is possible if it plays to its potential each and every game.
"I think the Winthrop loss was actually big for us. It sort of helped us because it sort of ticked us off and also gave us confidence that we know we’re a couple seconds from being, what, 6-1 in conference," Gillis said. "So we know we should be at the top of the conference."
Regardless of what anybody else might have expected when this season began.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.