Team preview: Hampton

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

One of college basketball's more unusual firings at the end of the 2005-06 season occurred at Hampton.

Coach Bobby Collins was let go only days after the Pirates had played and lost in the NCAA opening-round game against Monmouth. The firing ended a roller-coaster week for Collins. His last Hampton team had struggled down the stretch and limped into the MEAC Tournament as the sixth-seeded team, a far cry from where it had been picked to finish. Blue Ribbon predicted the Pirates would win the regular-season championship.

The season seemed all but over, but Hampton suddenly put it all together and posted four wins in four days, including an upset of Delaware State in the MEAC final. It was a just championship for Collins, who had seen his Hampton squad drop heartbreaking MEAC title games in 2003 and '05.

But the Pirates had to play Monmouth just three days after beating Delaware State in the NCAA's play-in game. A tired Hampton squad was embarrassed on ESPN, 71-49. It was the Pirates' fifth game in seven days and they had nothing left.

Collins was let go two days later after a four-year career where he led Hampton to the MEAC championship game three times in four years.

The firing seemed unjust to an outsider, but beneath the surface the move might have made some sense. Collins inherited a great program from Steve Merfeld as Hampton had won two straight titles in 2001 and '02. The Pirates just didn't seem to have the chemistry they had under Merfeld. Last year was close to a disaster as Hampton never came close to living up to the hype as a preseason favorite. Only a great week at the MEAC Tournament salvaged the season, and in the end that wasn't enough for Pirate administrators to save Collins.

It didn't take long for Hampton to hire a replacement in former Clemson assistant Kevin Nickelberry. Some might wonder why Nickelberry would take a job where he could get fired after going to the NCAA Tournament. But he couldn't be happier to be at Hampton.

"I think some of the coaches who interviewed for the job had questions where I had answers," Nickelberry said. "I want an administration to think that we can go to the Sweet 16 someday and be the team to beat in the MEAC year in and year out. I have no problems with that kind of pressure."

Nickelberry has an impressive pedigree. He has worked under some of the best coaches in the game in Ralph Willard at Holy Cross, Oliver Purnell at Clemson and Bobby Lutz at Charlotte. He was also an assistant at Howard, so he knows the lay of the land in the MEAC.

"This has a chance to be a great program," Nickelberry said. "You have a great arena. This is an easy place to recruit and you can win here. This program has the opportunity for excellence.

"This is my first head coaching job, and I was determined to find a sleeping giant. I think Hampton is the place for me.''

And it didn't take long for Nickelberry to make an impact. He signed what many are calling the best recruiting class in MEAC history. Some recruiting analysts rated it a Top 50 class.

"I was very excited about the recruiting class that we were able to bring into the program right off the bat," Nickelberry said. "We think we signed three great players that were being recruited by bigger programs."