11/10/11 — MOC men's basketball preview

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MOC men's basketball preview

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on November 10, 2011 1:48 PM

The Mount Olive College men's basketball team suffered through an injury-plagued season during Joey Higginbotham's third year at his alma mater.

Those injuries depleted the frontcourt, created depth issues on the bench and led to an uncharacteristic finish in Conference Carolinas play.

One year later, the Trojans -- now deeper, stronger and more experienced -- are worth keeping an eye on each time they take the court. They open their 2011-12 campaign Friday against Tusculum (Tenn.) College in the two-day SAC-Conference Carolinas Challenge that includes Anderson (S.C.) University, an NCAA Division II tournament qualifier last season.

Barton rounds out the four-team field.

"I'm excited about this group," said Higginbotham. "They've worked hard and had a really good preseason. We're definitely going to have some depth this year and the guys are competing for spots. Nothing is locked in right now.

"I think you're going to see a better team in January, February and March than what you will see now because of the new guys, and the guys who missed last year who are trying to get back into the swing of things."

Seniors Craig Hayes, Terrell Barrett, Kason Cheeks and Jordan Gaffney -- a quartet that brings physicality, length and size to the post -- return to the fold. Hayes (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) earned a medical redshirt in 2010-11 and has recovered from knee surgery.

Cheeks (6-5, 219) averaged 10 points and seven rebounds the first three games a year ago before a blood clot issue sidelined the former Wilson Hunt standout.

Barrett (6-6, 202) and Gaffney (6-7, 246) are healthy and ready to crash the boards. The duo helps give the Trojans one of their better rebounding teams from all five positions on the court. How well MOC plays defense and rebounds will undoubtedly factor into its success in a highly-competitive league and region.

"We were a little under-manned in the rebounding area last year, and that's not to say that the guys we had didn't work or go after rebounds," said Higginbotham. "With the pieces we have, we could be a very good rebounding team from our guards all the way to our bigs."

Directing the offense is senior Derek Staton, who has received All-American recognition from three different publications in the preseason. The 5-10 dynamo emerged the Trojans' leading scorer in 15 of 27 games a year ago, including a season-best 37-point effort in MOC's final game against NCAA Division II qualifier Limestone (S.C.) College.

Sophomore guard Dory Hines, the team's most all-around player, returns in the backcourt. The Kinston High alum averaged nine points and seven boards a year ago, was the team's top window cleaner (rebounder) in 13 games.

Hines (6-2, 184) has been selected a team captain along with Staton and Hayes this season.

"Dory is a competitor who might be unlike any competitor we've ever had because he's won in high school," said Higginbotham. "He does whatever it takes. If it's a loose ball, he's going to get it. If it's a rebound, he's going to get it. He's the type of kid who takes pride in our college and our program."

Returners Ewon Wright (6-0, 170), Mahamed Ibrahim (6-5, 203) and Deshaune Green (6-7, 187) have each worked on their defense in the offseason, and their roles could change. The trio combined to average nine points and 22 rebounds an outing a year ago.

Higginbotham said newcomers Darrell Patterson, Kendall Hargrove, Khari Faison, Caleb Henderson and Jordan McCain are improving daily in practice.

"They're all down-to-earth, fun guys to be around," said Higginbotham of his 14-player squad. "We have fun off the court, but get busy on the court and go after it. Our practices are competitive and we've yet to put together a top seven.

"They're starting to buy into the system and that's going to come more as the season goes on."