The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team will have their hands full today at Stanford’s Maples Pavilion against the Cardinal, but head coach Ben Miller thinks the first of five games during a challenging West Coast swing will benefit the Braves heading into the first month of the season.
UNCP is 0-7 all-time against Division I competition under Miller but played well at times against Northern Iowa, West Virginia, Winthrop and top-ranked North Carolina.
“I think our guys are excited to go out there and play some really quality teams,” Miller said. “You can schedule some lesser opponents and get some wins in the preseason, but it’s better for us to play against really good competition. Competition similar to what we’d see in the Peach Belt Conference.”
The Braves flew out of Raleigh on Saturday and bounced through multiple time zones to complete the longest road trip in school history later that evening. After taking on Stanford at 4 p.m. EST, a program coming off an NIT title, UNCP makes a short 16-mile trek from Palo Alto, Calif. to San Francisco on Monday to take on the University of San Francisco in its final exhibition game.
The 2012 season officially opens a few days later in Anaheim as part of the Disney West Coast Tip Off Classic. During their five-day stay in Anaheim, the Braves will take a break after morning practices with two days at Disneyland before taking on Division II powers Northern State, Southwest Minnesota State and Winona State.
The tripleheader against quality competition should boost UNCP’s RPI and overall strength of schedule during the DII NCAA Tournament selection process in March.
“We’re excited man, to get out there and have fun,” said UNCP’s Shahmel Brackett, captain and preseason all-conference shooting guard. “I think it’ll bring us closer together as a team and that’s something that will benefit us during the season.”
Brackett is entering his fourth and final season as a starter in the backcourt and has led the team in scoring each of the past three years. He is one of three seniors expected to be in today’s starting lineup against Stanford, joining K.J. Cooper and George Blakeney.
For the most part, Miller plans to utilize a three-guard attack this season to take advantage of a roster heavy on speed and talent. What the Braves lack in size, they make up for with athleticism. Jihad Wright, a 6-foot-4 sophomore out of Gastonia, played 26 minutes, scored 11 points and was the team’s leading rebounder in UNCP’s exhibition against Athletes in Action at a hybrid three position.
Redshirt freshman guard Quamain Rose, a local slasher who scored tons of points at Whiteville, netted 21 in his college debut and should share minutes with starting point guard Griffin Pittman in the backcourt.
UNCP’s ultimate goal is to get back to the NCAA Tournament like it did for the first time ever in 2010. The Braves faltered down the stretch last season losing seven of their last 12 games. Though inexperienced, the program now has what Miller feels is reliable depth for the first time in his five seasons in Pembroke.
UNCP was picked to finish third in the Peach Belt Conference this season behind Montevallo and Augusta State by the league’s head coaches.
“Our expectations should be high, I would think,” Miller said. “We feel like we’ve assembled a good collection of talent, speed and size. But we’ll need to get a lot better than we are now and that kind of thing takes time.”
FIVE BRAVES TO WATCH
The outspoken leader — Shahmel Brackett, Senior, Guard: The usually cool and collected Brackett admits that he’s still adjusting to being the veteran on the block and a vocal captain for the Braves. “It’s a little weird trying to show the young guys the ropes,” Brackett said. “It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was one of those young guys out there.” Brackett became the 28th member of UNCP’s 1,000-point club last season against Montevallo.
Most important player — George Blakeney, Senior, Center: Known as Big George for his lumbering 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame, Blakeney’s post game has gotten better with age as a Brave. Blakeney was more polished as an offensive option last season and averaged double figures for the second straight year. He’s an all-conference caliber big man, but is still a little raw defensively. Blakeney attacks the boards and should lead the Braves in rebounding as a senior.
High-energy option — Reggie Cobia, R-Sophomore, Forward: Along with Jihad Wright, a Campbell transfer, Cobia provides energy off the bench for the Braves and fits into a similar role that Nate Priest held the past two seasons. Cobia’s got a great body at 6-foot-7, 240 pounds and is one of the squad’s most athletic players. He only played in seven games last season but averaged nearly a rebound per minute.
Scoring needed — K.J. Cooper, Senior, Guard: Here’s a guy that can score in bunches when he’s hot and the Braves will need his expertise from the perimeter this season as a No. 2 option behind Brackett. Cooper has steadily improved throughout his career and should turn into a reliable option in his final campaign. He’s one of UNCP’s best on-ball defenders and seems to glide across the floor on defense.
Wild-card freshman — Quamain Rose, R-Freshman, Guard: It didn’t count, but Rose opened the eyes of many in attendance during UNCP’s exhibition opener against AIA with a stellar outing. Admittedly nervous, Rose says his role is to provide quickness and production off the bench this season as he battles toward a starting position. Rose is fast baseline-to-baseline and has a quick first step off the dribble.