CHARLESTON, S.C. – Charleston Southern got a taste of what its 2016-17 team offers during an August trip to Canada. Now, after six weeks of preseason practice, the Bucs are ready for the real thing. CSU tips off the season Saturday at Florida State and head coach Barclay Radebaugh is energized by a group with improved size, athleticism and depth.
All of those attributes were on display in the 3-0 Canadian tour, giving Radebaugh and company a better read on a team with seven newcomers and a redshirt freshman. The Bucs exhibited their potential with a balanced offensive attack and active defense keyed by an aggressive mentality. Radebaugh believes this group can blend talent and chemistry to return to the program back toward the form that saw it capture Big South regular season championships in 2012-13 and 2014-15.
"I really like this team," said Radebaugh as he begins his 12th season. "This is a great group to be around. They care about each other, are invested and we've seen that they compete hard as a unit. I've enjoyed the practices, the conditioning, the weight room, all of that. There gets a point in time after six weeks of practice where you just need to play and we're at that point. We're ready to play and we need to play."
A challenging non-conference slate has been a staple of Radebaugh's successful tenure and this year is no different. CSU will play four power conference foes once again, with Florida State (Nov. 12), Alabama (Nov. 29), Georgia (Dec. 17) and Virginia Tech (Dec. 20) all on tap.
Also among the highlights of CSU's November and December docket is a home-and-home with Abilene Christian and a meeting with USC Upstate. Add in a trip to VMI and Radebaugh's young squad will get exposed to a diverse array of opponents as it prepares for the 18-game Big South journey.
"We want our team to be tested in different ways during the non-conference schedule and we'll certainly be able to do that," Radebaugh said. "Playing teams with different styles of play helps our guys grow in understanding what goes into preparation."
The Big South season begins as 2016 ends, with matchups against Winthrop (Dec. 29) and Liberty (Dec. 31). The Eagles and Flames were picked 1-2 in the Big South preseason poll, perhaps giving the Bucs an immediate opportunity to see how they stack up against the league favorites.
Robinson heads leadership team
Instead of relying on one or two captains, CSU will employ a leadership team of Raemond Robinson, Cortez Mitchell, Javis Howard and Armel Potter. The Bucs will add a freshman to that group as the season progresses. According to Radebaugh, though, there's little doubt as to who CSU looks to as its tone-setter.
"Raemond is our leader," said Radebaugh of the senior guard from nearby Goose Creek High School. "We have a leadership team but Raemond is the leader of our team. I don't know that I've seen a kid work as hard as Raemond has worked to improve. He's had a phenomenal fall and will once again have a big impact on our team."
Robinson emerged as one of the top perimeter shooters in the Big South last year. He led the league with a 42.1 percent clip from three-point range and drilled 82 treys, the fourth-highest single season total in program history. Robinson has worked extensively on his ball handling to complement his skills as a shooter and leader.
Patrick Wallace also represents of the Big South's best sharpshooters. The N.C. State transfer made an immediate impact last year and gets about as many as shots as anyone anywhere. One never has to wait long to see Wallace in the gym behind the three-point line.
"Patrick is just a special human being," Radebaugh said. "He's one of the hardest working guys I've ever been around. He works on his game relentlessly. He'll have a big role on our team because he has a great feel for the game and his character is excellent."
Potter runs the show
Armel Potter was named to the Big South Preseason All-Conference Team (2nd team) and for good reason. Potter led CSU in nearly every statistical category a year ago and quickly developed as one of the top guards in the league en route to earning a spot on the all-freshman team. The additions of talented scorers like Christian Keeling and Cortez Mitchell should only make Potter better with a decreased burden.
"Armel has taken a big step forward and has improved on running the team significantly," Radebaugh said. "He's become much more vocal and accepted his position as a leader on the floor, as an extension of our coaching staff. He's also gained ten pounds of muscle and shown great willingness and want-to to improve defensively."
Best to come for Howard
Javis Howard averaged nearly 13 points and seven rebounds per game over a six-game last January and February. Added bulk and a more tenacious mentality make Howard potentially were on of the better low post threats in the Big South.
Assistant head coach/recruiting coordinator Ahmad Smith has worked hard to help mold Howard into the player CSU believed he could be when they landed him out of Irmo after an illustrious high school career.
"I've been so impressed with Javis' improvement," Radebaugh said. "He's up to almost 230 pounds and he's a lot calmer. The game has really slowed down for him significantly. The biggest impact Ahmad has had on Javis is just having a degree of confidence to score in the low post and wanting to score. He's improved as a passer and as a defender and could have a great year."
Helping Howard out at the forward spot is senior Ugo Mmonu. Mmonu offered glimpses of his offensive skill last year and has really made an impact throughout preseason practice.
"Ugo is one of the best stories I've been a part of during my time as the head coach here," Radebaugh said. "In Toronto, Ugo barely played. Against Florida State, he'll be our starter at the four. Over the course of the summer, Ugo recommitted himself to basketball, came back in great shape, worked hard on his skills and showed a determination to contribute to this team. He'll play a big role at the stretch four position for us."
Keeling, Mitchell and Jones among key pieces in big recruiting class
Coming off a disappointing season, CSU knew it needed an infusion of talent. Radebaugh is confident that is the case with a group of seven newcomers as well as forward Antwan Maxwell, who redshirted in 2015-16.
"Our new guys are really incredible people," Radebaugh said. "They haven't come in and tried to take over. They've come in and wanted to be part of a team and be part of a successful unit."
"Our returners have really been great," Radebaugh continued. "They recognized last year that we weren't as good as we have been so they have just opened their hearts and minds to new teammates. Our leadership team has done a phenomenal job of communicating and reminding people that our chemistry and outlook is very important to the success of our season this year."
One player who could play a central role in CSU's success is 6-3 guard Christian Keeling. The 2015-16 Georgia Basketball Player of the Year's (Augusta Chronicle) combination of size, scoring ability, athleticism and swagger give him a chance to be one of the best rookies in the Big South. He averaged 18 points per game and filled up the rest of the stat sheet in wins over Windsor University, Humber College and the University of Toronto this summer.
"When you start talking about Christian, the first thing that you notice is the way he carries himself," Radebaugh said. "I noticed it the very first time I saw him in an AAU game in Louisville, Kentucky. We were actually there to see another player, one of his teammates, and I tapped BJ on the shoulder and said 'who is that guy?'" He has a very unique ability to score at all three levels, his motor is terrific and he has an infectious personality. That real unique blend makes him a very good basketball player."
Alongside Keeling and Potter in the starting backcourt is junior Cortez Mitchell, a transfer from Pearl River Community College in Mississippi. Mitchell drew scholarship offers from Missouri, UTEP, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech. Mitchell's explosion off the dribble and ability to create for others make him a tough matchup. He also features a defensive knack and leadership qualities.
"Cortez is a big strong guard and a strong leader," Radebaugh said. "The thing I've enjoyed most about Cortez is he's a fierce competitor and really wants to win. He's going to have a great career at Charleston Southern."
Among the players contributing in the paint for CSU will be freshman Jordan Jones. Jones helped power Poly High School to a Baltimore city title by averaging a double-double along with over four blocks per game.
"As much as Christian has an impact on the court, Jordan has the same presence," Radebaugh said. "Jordan has a knack and a feel, particularly on the defensive end, that's very hard to teach. He's made an immediate impact on our program and gives us as good a post depth as we've had between him and Javis."
Juniors Jamal Thomas and Jamar Martin will also be important parts of CSU's deep rotation. The Canadian products got a chance to go home over the summer and have developed their games dating back to the summer. Both come to CSU from the junior college ranks.
Redshirt freshman Antwan Maxwell played very well in Canada and figures to work his way into the mix as well. Maxwell worked hard last year with assistant coach Joey Murdock and has terrific size on the wing at 6-7, 220 pounds.