Coastal Carolina has gotten bigger and more international in 2019-20 in an attempt to climb the ladder in the Sun Belt Conference standings and qualify for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The Chants have finished between sixth and eighth in their three previous seasons in the 12-team Sun Belt and last played in the NCAA Tournament as a member of the Big South Conference in 2015.
“I feel we’re way more talented this year,” said CCU redshirt sophomore guard DeVante Jones, the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year last season. “I feel this team we’ve got, if we keep working hard and put our mind into it, we can finish No. 1 in this conference.”
The Chants began practices this week and begin the season with seven consecutive home games at the HTC Center on campus including Nov. 5 against Campbell in the season opener and three games from Nov. 21-24 in the Myrtle Beach Invitational beginning with Utah. Other participating teams include Villanova, Mississippi State, Baylor and Middle Tennessee State.
“Hopefully we can go out and show everybody that we can play with everybody in the country,” senior forward Tommy Burton said.
The Chants also host Winthrop and North Carolina Central, which has made the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years, in December prior to the start of Sun Belt Conference play. Hoopla, CCU’s celebration of its basketball teams, is Oct. 30 at 9 or 10 p.m.
“We’ve got a lot to look forward to because we’ve got so many great teams that are coming here. It’s going to be fun,” said coach Cliff Ellis, 73, who is in his 45th season as college head coach and 13th season at Coastal.
The Chants have a pair of double-digit scorers returning, in Jones, who averaged 14.6 points and about 4 rebounds and 4 assists per game at the point, and 6-3 senior guard Tyrell Gumbs-Frater, who averaged 10.1 points as a dangerous outside shooter.
They’re joined by returning starter Ebrima “Ebo” Dibba at guard, who averaged 8.5 points, 4.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game last season as a freshman. Burton, who is 6-foot-8, sophomore 6-7 forward Isaac Hippolyte, senior 5-10 senior guard Josh Peterson and sophomore 6-5 guard Malik LeGania also return after contributing on the court last season.
Jones has a broken bone in his left foot – the same bone that was broken in his right foot and forced him to miss time last season – that he incurred during a pickup game after he evacuated campus because of Hurricane Dorian, and expects to return a few games into the season.
“I like our group,” Ellis said. “I know that D.J. and Ebo and Tommy Burton and Ty are givens, and you can play eight or nine guys, so now it’s trying to find those four or five guys who are going to mix in.”
Among the newcomers are 6-2 junior guard Keishawn Brewton, a prolific scorer at Chipola Junior College; 6-6 junior swingman Garrick Green from Howard junior college; and 6-10 junior center Levi Cook from Wabash Valley College, who should be a force inside. He is recovering from a torn knee meniscus and is expected to return before the start of the season.
The Chants have gotten bigger and taller this year, as Cook is 6-10 and 280 pounds, 6-9 freshman center Essam Mostafa is 270 pounds, freshman Hosana Kitenge is 6-7 and 265 pounds, and 6-8 freshman Tim Ceaser of Marion, Arkansas is a tall perimeter player who can handle the ball and shoot.
“It’s always good having size to help us compete,” Burton said. “I think last year we had a lot of size but we weren’t as big as we are this year. I think the size is going to help us compete in practice every day and will definitely help us going against bigger competition.”
Coastal has an international team with Dibba from Sweden, Gumbs-Frater from Ontario, Canada, Kitenge from West Sussex, England, Mostafa from Cairo, Egypt, and freshman forward Ahmard Harvey from Freeport, Bahamas. There are only six programs in Division I with more international players than Coastal’s five, according to a study conducted by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga director of strategic communications Jim Horten.
Ellis believes he can perhaps bring a higher level of talent from areas outside the United States that may not be as heavily recruited.
“That has been an area we’ve been trying to have focus on because I think kids want to come into America and it’s an area that we can perhaps find that guy that maybe can possibly play at the Power Five [Conference] level,” Ellis said.
Ellis lost three players who left the team with eligibility remaining. Guard Trey Brown averaged 4.2 points in 31 games as a sophomore, guard David Pierce averaged six points and was limited to 11 games because of injury, and guard David Kralj left the program last year during his freshman year to play professionally in his home country of Slovenia,
Coastal also lost to graduation leading scorer Zac Cuthbertson and guard Ajay Sanders, who are playing professionally overseas, as well as center Josh Coleman and guard Matt Lindsey.
“I said when we went into the Sun Belt we really had taken our place from the bottom of the Big South to the top,” Ellis said. “It was going to be a five-year plan, and this is year four. I want to get this thing to the top of the Sun Belt.”