Coming off the program's best season in more than a dozen years, the Fighting Camels have been picked to finish in the middle of the pack in a pre-season poll of Atlantic Sun Conference head coaches.
The Camels were the most-improved team in the Atlantic Sun Conference last season, despite competing with the 10th least-experienced roster among 343 NCAA Division I programs.
The Fighting Camels (14-16, 11-9) tied a school record for most Atlantic Sun Conference regular season victories, matching the 11 wins collected by the 1996 club, and recorded the program's first winning record in league play since the 2000 squad finished 10-8.
Campbell returns 10 players from its 2008-09 roster, including three-time all-conference performer Jonathan Rodriguez and league freshman of the year Lorne Merthie.
Head coach Robbie Laing, however, is focused on taking the next step by improving upon last season's fifth place league finish. Before the 2009-10 pre-season practice officially started on Friday, he discussed his outlook for this year's team.
Question: How has preparing for this, your seventh season at Campbell University, been different from the previous six?
Laing: "This one's unique in the respect that we have so many returnees. There's been very little turnover. We have a couple of four year guys who have done extremely well in their careers as seniors and two junior college players who saw extensive action last season. Junard Hartley is a three-year guy, who as a point guard, certainly helps you run a ball club. The nucleus of Junard, Kyle (Vejraska) and Jonathan (Rodriguez), guys that have over 200 games of college basketball experience between them, I think will make the transition for our new kids easier. We can get right to the meat-and-potatoes of what we're doing in practice, review fundamentals and get right down to the up-and-down part of the way we want to play."
Q: In what areas did you see your team improve the most last year?
Laing: "I think we made some big strides last year defensively as a unit. When I speak of our core returning group, not just speaking on the offensive end of the court, but on both ends, we saw improvement throughout. Because we were so solid in the half-court defense last year, I think we can extend some to full court and look at some gimmick defenses. The base for all that is having a sound half-court defense."
Q: What are some of the qualities that observers should expect to see out of the 2009-10 Fighting Camels?
Laing: "As a team, our personnel is so alike, particularly the two-through-five positions. They're alike in size, quickness and in other ways as well. They're such similar players; we're going to use the parts interchangeably. We're going to space the floor, post up twos and threes, which is a bit unconventional, put the ball on the floor, and create penetration opportunities.
"While overall on the front line, we may not be that big, our team size is big in that we have big wings. We're going to try to utilize those wings offensively, not as stationary 3-point shooters, but as penetrating and post-up guys, which should help our rebounding. We have a lot of interchangeable parts, a lot more depth, which lends itself to a better full-court playing situation. We have a lot guys who score in a lot of ways. We'll continue to have an equal-opportunity offense, but put guys in situations that will benefit their own abilities."
Q: What are some of the differences you see in the Campbell program from the time you started the job in April 2003 to now, more than six years later?
Laing: "First, the kind of kids we have in the program. We have a solid group of people that are very good basketball players. We have great chemistry on and off the floor. I've done this for awhile, and am getting more comfortable with what I do and how I do it. Our kids have more confidence in themselves and the staff because of the finish we had last year, winning seven of the last 10 in the regular season.
"Also, I think we have more components on the outside that allow us to be more successful. One, we have a top-notch strength coach, which has contributed to our maturation as a basketball team. We have legitimate practice venues and facilities to prepare our team more adequately day-in and day-out for the rigors of a Division I schedule. It's become a very enjoyable situation, a very solid Division I job. We're constantly improving in areas that help you become more successful in Division I basketball. That success breeds confidence, and the commitment made by the University as a whole makes you more relaxed as well because you know you've got a legitimate chance to go in and contend every year."
Q: In what ways might your team be different defensively this year?
Laing: "We're a little more solid in our half-court defense now than in years past, and I think we'll apply pressure with trapping and double-teaming along with ball pressure that can lead to turnovers. We're so alike personnel-wise, that when recovering from traps, it doesn't really matter who matches up with whom. We can switch defensively and keep guys in front of us and make them score over the top, then go fetch it off the boards.
"I think we'll create pressure by full-court situations, and even if we don't get the turnover, we'll make people use more of the clock so we don't have to defend as long in the half-court. We're giving the guys liberty if they end up in a situation that's close enough to trap, we'll give them the freedom to go do that. We just don't want to allow teams to do what they do. We want them to stay out of rhythm. Hopefully, we'll do that by picking up full-court, double-teaming in half-court, changing defenses, and rebounding well from all five spots so that we can create a little more offensive excitement."
Q: A year ago, your roster did not include any seniors. This year, you have four senior and two juniors who are entering their third year in the program. How different has it been for you to finally have that kind of experience on and off the floor?
Laing: "With so many players back from last year, it's amazing to watch what occurs on the side lines, the returnees teaching the newcomers, the four-and three-year veterans refreshing those who haven't been in the program that long. There are discussions you see going on between guys, where they're sorting out opportunities to make the situation better. It's really enjoyable to watch. Maybe, your first reaction is that you want total command of the practice and everyone to hear you, but now they're coming up with ideas and making suggestions to keep on improving and taking ownership of the program."
Q: What are some of the best qualities of your veteran players?
Laing: "Lorne (Merthie) and Jonathan (Rodriguez) are basketball players that just have instinctive ability that you don't coach. They just make basketball plays. Then you have Kyle Vejraska who is a business major and a very good basketball mind. Show him something once, and he's got it. Put those three on the court with Junard Hartley, who has become a commanding presence, plus Preston Dodson, who is in his third year and shown a great deal of maturity physically and mentally, you have five guys with a lot of experience, ability and composure, which is a key to finishing games."
Q: What goals have the players set heading into pre-season practice?
Laing: "There's a common thread between so many guys. They now understand what we're going to face in certain teams, in certain environments. Overall, we're a little bitter about the way our season ended last year in the A-Sun tournament. I've heard a number of our kids talking about what's an acceptable way for us to end our season and that goal have been set very high. There is a commitment to do better. There's no sense in being a slow-starting this year. I think everyone understands what we have to do to start well, and they speak of that. Everybody in our group understands that the four weeks building up to day one are vital in our ability to do well the first three weeks of our season. I know their strengths and weaknesses, and the players know them as well.
"The foundation for the season really has to be taken care of in October and the first two weeks of November. Basically you have three weeks, after mandatory days off and two scrimmages, focused, full of effort and striving for execution. I think they understand that and I don't think I'll have to coach that. These guys understand the intensity level you have to have to be successful. They've done well with that in preseason activities."
Q: What are some possible combinations spectators might see on the floor this year?
Laing: "You can throw Junard, Lorne, Kyle, Preston and Jonathan out there, and maybe it's not the most athletic team you can put o the floor, but it certainly is one of the most savvy and knowledgeable in our league. Then you can turn around with (Amir) Celestin, (Miles) Taylor, (William) Kossangue, (Larry) Awosanya and (Chris) Reynolds, which might be most athletic team in the A-Sun and can match up with everybody. The challenge for me is how to mix and match, and also the challenge to every kid. If you look at it now, there are 11 guys, including Ricky Krainiak, that are going to vie for 200 minutes, or less than 20 minutes a game if you divide it evenly.
"Some guys could be more effective and better players with not quite the stats they've had in the past because we have more guys picking up and playing more minutes. Our sub pattern is going to be a little freer so that we pick up more intensity.
Q: What do you expect to see in the next month of practice before the season opener on Nov. 13?
Laing: "I think practices are going to be highly competitive. These guys will have to think, 'I'd better bring my A-game to practice.' If they don't, you can ask a kid to flip a jersey, or stand a little more and move on to the next one. I think that will increase day-to-day accountability to work hard and improve."
Q: What were your goals when assembling a non-conference schedule that included the likes of Virginia Tech, East Carolina and Appalachian State visiting the Pope Center, as well as road trips to UNC Wilmington, UNC Asheville and Western Carolina among others?
Laing: Our non-conference schedule is a little taste of what I hope is to come in the future. With our new venue, more people from some of the better conferences are going to be interested in playing home-and-home series. That ties into recruiting as well; playing teams from some of the better conferences in the country and not having to always play them on the road. Regional rivalries are good for basketball and Campbell University. We'll continue to go in that direction.
Q: How do you see the Atlantic Sun race developing?
Laing: "I think the league is wide open. Injuries and luck - good or bad - can affect the outcome for any team. The margin for error is so small; a number-six pick could become the first- or second-seed in the tournament. And the first or second could become the sixth. Our focus is to go in and play one game at a time and let the standings take care of themselves. The key is to be playing well come February and March. I hope that with the experience we have, we'll be playing well at that time."
Coach Laing's observations on his 2009-10 personnel, in class order:
Jonathan Rodriguez / Senior / Forward / Bayamon, Puerto Rico / Calusa Prep (Miami, Fla.)
"Jonathan has tried to evolve his game. As he comes back for his senior year, he's determined to improve his play in some areas that he didn't do quite as well in his junior year. Ultimately, he would like to go out as a winner and is at a point that he understands that there are a lot of things beside putting the ball in the basket that are going to help us get there. Certainly he's got to get back to the free throw line more often to help us be successful. With a smaller lineup, he's a power guy for us, not a finesse guy. He's got to force confrontations at the basket. If he does that, he's going to be better and our team's going to be better as a result."
Kyle Vejraska / Senior / Forward / Alachua, Fla. / Santa Fe HS
"During the second half of last season, Kyle stayed out of foul trouble for the first time in his career. We intend to play him on the wing. He's proven to be a good 3-point shooter, and defensively he improved his shot-blocking at the end of the year. Staying out of foul trouble and increasing his stamina so he can play more minutes is a big factor. Kyle is very vocal and knows every position on the floor; it's good to have him out there. He's also not afraid to take a shot or make a play with the game on the line."
William Kossangue / Senior / Forward / Bangui, Central Africa Republic / Tyler (Texas) JC
"William has improved his body and his ability to stay on the floor longer. He was very effective in spurts last year as a scorer. He's an excellent outside shooter, but has improved his ability going to the rim. He understands that's important to what we want to do. William had a great off-season preparing his body and mind for what's ahead. He can play the two or three positions for us. When he played for his country in the Africa Nation's Cup over the summer, William figured out the game of basketball is very physical, and you don't get something without putting in a strong, strong commitment for what you want to do. He had to try out for the team, make the team, compete for playing time, and turned out a starter. He developed confidence, and very excited about his basketball future. William also thought his defensive foundation he with him took over there gave him an edge as well as his level of intensity. Playing physical and going to get the ball off the glass outside his area are important aspects of his game."
Miles Taylor / Senior / Forward / Pensacola, Fla. / Pensacola JC
"Miles' motor really has always run, but he is really flying around right now. He's playing with a great deal of confidence and motivating guys around him. He's at the front of everything we do in conditioning. We've talked about moving him inside in spite of his size (6-foot-4) because he's tough to handle defensively. He's come back with an open mind to help us become successful. Miles' energy has helped our basketball team throughout fall workouts. You can't fake that kind of stuff. He will definitely be in the mix and is a vital part of our success. There's no question Miles and William are more comfortable this year. They are thinking less and playing more, and the level of their game has risen because of that."
Junard Hartley / Junior / Point Guard / Atlanta, Ga. / Whitfield Academy
"Junard is in the best shape he's been in since he joined our program. Last year he had broken toe in pre-season and kind of played his way into shape during the year. He has worked hard on his outside shot, is knocking down shots, and is one of the best rebounders on the team. He gives us the ability when we go with three guards to slide him over to small forward. He's vocal, and has become very confident in what we're trying to get done. Junard is taking stock in making sure we get done what we need to get done possession by possession."
Preston Dodson / Junior / Forward / South Mills, N.C. / Camden County HS
"Preston is an amazing guy. I don't know that I've coached anyone with as much fortitude as he has. He is exceptionally strong in the weight room. He's moving laterally and flying around in the press, getting to balls off the glass outside his area. He takes hits and gets to the line, and doesn't try to do things he can't do. Now, he's even started to reach out and hold people accountable around him. He doesn't use lot of words to do it. He's a pretty good testimony with his actions. If he acknowledges someone's lack of intensity, they get the message quickly. He's a rugged, raw-boned, fierce competitor."
Amir Celestin / Sophomore / Guard / Miami, Fla. / Norland HS
"I think Amir is perhaps the quickest player in our league. When he's really in to playing the game the way we want it played, it's hard to stay in front of him and hard to get by him defensively. His downfall last year was foul trouble because he wasn't ready at all times. Amir is great at getting to rim, and we've worked with him on finishing more of those plays. He's great at breaking full-court pressure; it's hard to hem him up. I want him on the court more than last year and he was on it for 19-plus minutes a game. I'd like to see him get up to the mid- and upper 20s."
Lorne Merthie / Sophomore / Guard / Sanford, Fla. / Winter Springs HS
"Lorne is a REAL basketball player. He likes the ball in his hands with the game on the line. He reads defenses very well and has a quick release on a beautiful shot. He's getting better defensively and has the ability to play the one-position. As he gets more comfortable and understands even more of what we're doing, he allows us to be three-deep at the point. We'll have the chance in late game situations to have 3 point guards on floor. He's crafty in sneaking rebounds. He makes people around him better, which is the sign of a really good guard. Lorne's big challenge is to get where he can stay on the floor, increase his stamina, provide more quality minutes and be more physical."
Chris Reynolds / Sophomore / Forward / Augusta, Ga. / Glenn Hills HS
"Chris' motor always runs. He's a high energy guy. Our challenge is to get him to slow down a bit with the ball in his hands. He has improved his outside shot, and is shooting the three with more effectiveness. He has too much athleticism not to rebound more balls out of his area. He can be a huge contributor in our pressure defense with his ability to guard any position. More minutes are going to make him a better player. He's a great team guy and his attitude never, ever wavered when he wasn't getting minutes he hoped for early on last year. He has a huge upside and just needs to keep working."
Cole Dewey / Sophomore (Red-Shirt) / Guard / Willow Spring, N.C. / South Johnston HS
"Cole's challenge is to continue to improve his body, and become a physical player. He has a great mind for the game, but has been nagged by injuries throughout his career. Hopefully, he will be entering this season healthy and can make a step forward."
Larry Awosanya / Freshman / Forward / London, England / Edison (N.J.) Prep
"Larry's a long, bouncy, athletic fly-around guy who has shown a lot of energy. He goes after the ball, and can score a lot of ways. He just has to get acclimated to the system. He is bright, thirsts for knowledge and likes to get it right. He already has logged a lot of basketball hours as a prep school guy and internationally. We expect him to make a contribution immediately."
Ricky Krainiak / Freshman / Guard / Camden, N.C. / Camden County HS
"Ricky's a sneaky-good athlete and is way more athletic than he looks. He's explosive and a cold-hearted jump shooter from deep. He has no fear and isn't one-dimensional. He can get to rim and isn't afraid of contact. He has good feet and is getting better defensively, while learning how to play at higher level for sustained periods of time, like all freshmen. He's another one I expect to help us immediately."
Olivier Siewe / Freshman / Forward / Douala, Cameroon / Piney Woods (Miss.) HS
"Olivier is a very physical, tenacious competitor. He loves to play in traffic, doesn't shy from confrontations, and rebounds in traffic. He will get better as he becomes more comfortable with the college environment and our system of play. A good defender."