Coastal Carolina men’s basketball coach Cliff Ellis is not going overboard with his expectations for the team’s first season in the Sun Belt Conference after the Chanticleers spent over three decades as members of the Big South Conference.
Ellis said he knows the stakes have been raised and is preparing Coastal Carolina – which has made two NCAA Tournament appearances in the past three seasons – for the “toughest challenge” it has faced yet.
“I think we have to be realistic. It’s the first time going into the Sun Belt and it’s a different league; it’s a top 10 league. We did our job in the Big South. There’s going to be an adjustment, because it’s a big-time basketball league,” said Ellis, who has a 179-110 (.619) overall record in nine seasons with the Chants. “To say we’re going to win the Sun Belt – that’s something we’re going to try to do, but at the same point in time, you have to recruit to the Sun Belt. Which this is the first school year we’ve been able to do that. We are stepping it up in every way. We upgraded our schedule, we upgraded our conference and it takes time.”
Regardless, Ellis has his players pumped up for the season, which will kick off Nov. 11 when Coastal Carolina will take on SEC foe Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. as part of a tough non-conference schedule to help prepare the Chants for what’s to come in the Sun Belt slate.
“We’re all excited to get going. That first game against Alabama will be tough. But this whole season is going to be tough. We know that,” Coastal Carolina senior guard Colton Ray-St Cyr said. “[Ellis] will have us ready. We’ve been going hard, and just need to bring that intensity and physicality when we hit the court for real.”
Although the Chants will be without redshirt senior Michel Enanga – who just had surgery on his knee this week – for approximately five to six weeks and may not be ready for the opener, according to Ellis.
“It’s still a slow process. He has had so many issues,” Ellis said. “You feel for him, but its part of athletics and what you have to deal with. But he hasn’t been able to practice and hasn’t played for close to year and it’s going to take time.”
Enanga last played on Dec. 14 in a win over Wofford, and has been dealing with problems to his knees ever since. But he said his surgery went well and can’t wait to get back on the court.
“I’m confident about it,” he said. “I really want to be back out there. I have to sit here and see everybody, and I just want to be a part of it.”
Also missing from the program has been senior guard Shivaughn Wiggins, who was charged with third-degree assault and battery in March. Ellis has hopes that Wiggins, who led the team in steals (46) and was second in both scoring (12.6 ppg) and assists (3.6 apg) last season.
Hoping to step up in Wiggins’ absence is junior guard Jaylan Robertson, who Ellis has been impressed with.
“We do expect him to return. It will be second term,” Ellis said of Wiggins. “At the same time, our guys have been working. But we’ll look to get Shivaughn back during that time, and at the same time I’ve been very impressed with Jaylan Roberts and think he’s going to fill those shoes very, very well.”
The Chants will be looking to gel with six new faces on the team and will surely miss seniors Badou Diagne, Ron Trapps, Tristian Curtis, Marcus Freeman and Aaron Law as their eligibility ran out after last season.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that are focusing on doing their jobs. There’s not anybody that we don’t feel comfortable with putting out on the court so we’re excited about it. But there is some new faces,” Ellis said. “It’s like taking a cake and putting it in the oven. There’s ingredients there, you just hope it rises. Losing six players, that’s a lot. Going in and taking the schedule and all that we’ve done, we’re going to be realistic with our team. We’ve got to take our time.”
Meanwhile, Ellis has actually been a member of the Sun Belt before.
He coached the South Alabama Jaguars from 1976 to 1984 with a 171-84 (.671) overall record and two NCAA Tournament appearances. He said he knows there is a turnaround period for those entering the conference, but there’s still a chance to succeed early on and is eager to give it a shot.
“I’ve been part of the Sun Belt in the past and I think it’s realistically about a four-year process for a basketball program. From recruiting, to getting used to who your opponents are and getting to that level of play. If we can do it before then, that’s great,” Ellis said. “But you look at who we’re playing, both conference and non-conference – it’s probably one of the toughest challenges Coastal has faced. We’re proud of our past, but we’re stepping up and we have to be ready. It’s a great challenge; I’m really looking forward to it.”