11/14/08 — Challenges await team, Higginbotham

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Challenges await team, Higginbotham

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on November 14, 2008 1:46 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- The plate is full.

A difficult non-conference schedule, preseason national rankings and early-season injuries have left Mount Olive men's basketball coach Joey Higginbotham stuffed. The Trojan alum wants to push away from the table, but it's difficult to do when you're feasting on talent.

An assistant coach for 18 seasons at MOC, Higginbotham inherited a program which returns seven starters off last year's NCAA Division II tournament team. The Trojans finished 24-6 overall, and claimed the regular-season and tournament crowns in Conference Carolinas play.

Back are tri-captains Chris Holloway, Justin Melton and Kendrick Easley. Easley has earned All-American recognition from several publications in the preseason, while the team is ranked nationally in two top 25 polls.

Melton suffered a slight torn meniscus and recently underwent surgery to repair the damage. The point guard is expected to miss at least the first month of regular-season play, which includes matchups against three nationally-ranked teams -- Lenoir-Rhyne, Catawba and Francis Marion (S.C.).

Melton averaged just over seven points, four assists and 27 minutes a game last season. Five-foot-9 freshman Derek Staton will be expected to run the offense during Melton's absence.

"Mouse (Melton) is our motor, he gets us where we need to go," said Higginbotham. "He gets the keys to what we call our Cadillac. Just because he's not on the floor does not mean he's not a huge part of this program."

Easley suffered a shoulder injury in the Trojans' exhibition game against Wake Forest. His status has been listed day-to-day. Holloway remains healthy and his presence will be needed inside.

The Trojans open the season Saturday against No. 17 Lenoir-Rhyne in the Catawba College Classic. They face Catawba the following day and get little rest before playing FMU in the annual Pickle Classic less than a week later.

"We want to play a tough schedule to get us ready for our league," said Higginbotham. "Most of the guys who have been around know our league is very competitive and that's the way we prepare. Our number one thing is we have to take care of our league.

"We'll do everything to be prepared when the second semester begins."

Easley and Mike Holloman return in the backcourt along with sophomores Aaron Dobson and Justin Foskey. Freshman Angelo Griffin may also seem some time at guard as well.

Production from the perimeter will be a must for the Trojans since Brandon Streeter, the 2007-08 Conference Carolinas player of the year, has graduated.

A senior, Holloway (6-foot-4) will lead a group of talent, but inexperienced big men. Sophomores Craig Hayes (6-4), Kason Cheeks (6-6), JUCO transfer Tanner Carnes (6-5) and Canada native Aleks Mitrovic will be counted on inside the paint.

"We don't have that dominating low block player," said Higginbotham. "We're going to have to have a lot of dribble penetration."