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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Campbell is getting better, and the Camels are getting there in a hurry.
Just three years after being mired in a slow-paced Princeton offense that elicited plenty of yawns from fans as the losses piled up, Campbell's transformation under coach Robbie Laing is nearly complete.
When Laing came to Campbell, he had a vision of plugging in a high-octane offense, boosting the tempo along with the excitement level in Carter Gymnasium.
In order for that to happen, Laing had to grit his teeth and take his lumps until he could get the players he needed on board.
The Camels won just three games in Laing's first season as players brought in to play a deliberate style tried to keep up with the faster pace. Laing had a roster more suited for the run-and-gun style in his second season, but youth betrayed the Camels and they won only twice, against 25 losses.
Campbell didn't win a single game in A-Sun play, but the young Camels showed signs of catching on near the end of the 2004-05 season.
Laing entered last season with a 5-49 record at Campbell, but he also had the mix of athleticism and experience he needed to field a competitive basketball team.
The 10-18 record, including nine wins in the conference, may not have turned many heads around the basketball world, but the offensive statistics sure did.
Campbell finished the 2005-06 season as the second-highest scoring team in the country with an 82.8 points-per-game average. The Camels were also third in the nation in three-point field goals made per game with an average of 9.9 per contest.
The nine-game improvement in conference earned Laing A-Sun Coach-of-the-Year honors from Collegeinsider.com and the frantic style of play breathed life into Carter Gymnasium.
Campbell played in front of nine sellout crowds at home, and the gym was at least 96 percent full for most of the season.
"There's a lot of momentum being generated in Buies Creek for this program and our university," Laing said. "We have a lot of positive recruiting pitches available to us that we didn't have a couple of years ago. I think the foundation is now set for our program."
If you make it to a Camels game this year, be sure not to blink when Campbell has the basketball.
"We try to get a shot within seven seconds of getting the ball," Laing said. "Occasionally, the defense has other ideas and slows us down a tad. And if our shot doesn't go, we like to send four bandits to the glass."
The growing pains appear to be fading as Campbell enters the 2006-07 season with its starting backcourt from a year ago intact. With the guard-oriented offense the Camels rely on, there's no reason to believe the improvement won't continue.
Laing will lean heavy on the trio of Eric Smith (16.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg), Ledell Eackles (9.9 ppg, 5.4 apg) and Ruell Pringle (8.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg) after the graduation of Campbell's starting frontcourt.
Smith thrived in the up-tempo offense and had a breakout year in 2005-06. The 6-1 senior shot just a shade under 40 percent from beyond the arc but also showed the ability to get to the rim. Smith ranked sixth in the nation with his 3.8 three-point field goal per-game average and also showed his consistency by scoring in double figures in 24 of the 28 games he played.
Eackles manned the point guard spot and finished 29th in the nation in assists. The 5-11 senior was also able to score, but he has to get smarter this year if Campbell is going to get better. He may have piled up 151 assists a year ago, but Eackles needs to improve on the 118 turnovers he committed.
Pringle had an impressive sophomore campaign, starting 14 games and making the most of his playing time. With a solid season behind him, the 6-1 junior has a chance to up his scoring output if he can improve his touch (.270) from three-point range.
There is plenty of depth to be found in the backcourt as well.
Jake Wohlfeil (6.7 ppg, 2.1 apg) and Reggie Bishop (8.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg) both saw a lot of playing time last year and both are returning this year.
Wohlfeil started 13 games and proved to be a consistent long-range threat. The 6-4 junior knocked down nearly 40 percent of his three-point attempts.
Bishop, a 6-3 junior, averaged 8.6 point despite playing only 19 minutes per game.
Stephon Griffin returns this year after taking a red-shirt season in 2005-06. The 6-2 sophomore will have a hard time playing his way into the rotation with everyone in the backcourt coming back.
As for the frontcourt, the two starting slots seem to be up for grabs among some inexperienced returnees and some talented newcomers.
The task at hand will be to replace leading scorer and rebounder Maurice Latham, a first-team all-conference selection a year ago. Also gone are Comerlee Poole, who started alongside Latham for most of the year, and Diego Aguiar, who saw substantial playing time off the bench.
Oladapo Fagbenle (3.1 rpg, 1.15 bpg) seems to have the edge to take over Latham's spot. While the 6-9 sophomore has yet to prove he has what it takes to replace the 18 points per game Latham put up last year, he does bring something to the table that has been sorely lacking at Campbell -- defense.
Latham was third in the conference in blocked shots last season in limited playing time. For a team that gave up 86 points per game last year, Fagbenle's defensive prowess will come in handy.
Colin Hunt and Matthew Johnson are both upperclassmen, but neither has much of an edge on the trio of newcomers coming to campus in search of playing time. Hunt, a 6-8 senior, and Johnson, a 6-8 junior, played a combined nine minutes per game last year. They both have size, but it remains to be seen if either player can keep up with Campbell's frantic pace of play.
Kyle Vejraska, on the other hand, seems to be a perfect fit. The 6-8 freshman has size to go along with a sleek frame made for running the floor. The combination is just what Laing envisions for his post players.
"His basketball versatility fits with our style of play," he said. "He has a tremendous upside. He's a dribble-pass-shoot guy at 6-foot-8, and we expect him to have an impact on our program immediately as a freshman."
Verjraska averaged 17.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.2 blocks as a senior at Santa Fe High School in Alachua, Fla.
Jonathan Rodriguez will take versatility to another level if Laing has his way.
"I expect Jonathan to be an impact player for us," he said. "We anticipate him playing at four different positions and bringing tremendous enthusiasm to the program."
Rodriguez put up big-time numbers at Calusa Prep in Miami last year, averaging 25.5 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists. The 6-6 freshman could work his way into the lineup at the forward slot sooner rather than later.
Junior Eddie Brown (8.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg) has experience on his side as he makes his way to Campbell from Pasco-Hermando Community College in St. Petersburg, Fla. The 6-9 forward's experience and maturity level could give him an edge.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
It's not often that you'll see a coach with a 14-60 record over three years get a multi-year contract extension, but the folks at Campbell are looking ahead to what appears to be a bright future. It's a just reward for Laing, who led Campbell to as many wins last season as the program had in the previous three years combined.
On Sept. 1, ground was broken for the new John W. Pope Jr. Convocation Center, a 3,000-seat home for the Camels. Just call it "The House that Points Built."
"We have a lot of recruits that are interested in seeing this materialize," Laing said. "It's impacted our recruiting last year and I think it's important for the success of our program."
With so many returning players in a league where turnover is especially high, Campbell will see another jump in the win column this year. The excitement is clearly growing in what was a basketball wasteland a few short years ago. There is, however, a glass ceiling that Campbell will need to find a way to break through in the near future.
If Laing can't find a way to somehow fuse some defense into his fast-paced structure, Campbell will have a hard time taking the next step toward becoming a power in the A-Sun.
But for now, look for the Camels to run and gun their way to a top-four finish in the league, a giant leap in the right direction for a program on the rebound.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2006-07 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).