By Ryan Young
Myrtle Beach Sun-News
The Campbell men's basketball team was picked a lowly ninth in the Big South Conference's preseason coaches and media poll, but as Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis noted, that has more to say about the rest of the league than it does the Fighting Camels.
Back in the Big South for the first time since leaving in 1994 for the Atlantic Sun, Campbell entered this season as something of an unknown throughout the conference.
That's changing, though.
"People don't know them," Ellis said, dismissing the preseason poll in advance of his team's tilt at Campbell on Monday night. "Here's the statistics on Campbell. They just took North Carolina State to the wire. They beat Iowa by  and they beat East Carolina, who drubbed us. So that's all we need to know."
The Camels (8-6, 2-0 Big South) have lost five straight games after an 8-1 start, but they have nonetheless caught the attention of their new conference foes with convincing league wins last month over Liberty and High Point to go with those aforementioned non-conference triumphs – 77-61 over Iowa and 76-74 over East Carolina.
And as Ellis mentioned, they are coming off a competitive 87-81 loss on the road at N.C. State.
"I was a little surprised myself we were picked that low," Campbell coach Robbie Laing said over the phone Sunday of the preseason expectations for his program. "I thought we'd get a little more respect than that coming in, but the coaches in their defense don't know a lot about us. ... We had a lot of new faces and nobody could know a whole lot about us."
Ellis and Laing, meanwhile, know plenty about each other.
Laing spent one season as an assistant coach under Ellis at Clemson and two more with him at Auburn before advancing in his own career and taking over the Campbell program in 2003.
The two coaches have kept in contact over the years, sharing dinner, sharing information on common opponents at times and having their teams meet before last season for a controlled preseason scrimmage.
"He's going to know everything we do," Ellis said. "There won't be any surprises. He was with me at Auburn and Clemson, so he knows our system."
For that matter, Ellis' influence can be seen somewhat in Laing's program, as well.
Foremost, Laing said, he learned from Ellis how to manage people – from players to support staff – and keep his teams fresh over the long haul of a season.
"I had been with [coaches] who would really work guys into the ground mentally and physically, and coach Ellis really had a feel for letting his players regroup when they were down and keeping the game about the kids and not the coaches," Laing said. "That's just something that really surprised me coaching in the SEC and ACC that he knew how to keep kids fresh mentally and physically in January, February and March. That's hard to do because it's a long grind. ...
"That was really the neatest thing that I got from him. But he's also a very good tactician. He knows how to beat defenses with set plays, and I've kept some of those in my system. And he recognizes pretty early – he won't let something beat him over and over again. He's going to change, he'll adjust, and that's something a lot of coaches don't have."
As for his Campbell team and what the expectation should be for the Camels within the conference, well, Laing jokes that he isn't so sure at this very moment.
"If you'd have asked me two weeks ago, I'd have thought we could win it all. Now I don't know if we're going to win another game," he said wryly of the team's recent skid.
Really, though, he believes Campbell can make a significant impression in its first season back in the Big South, finishing somewhere in the upper half of the league if everything comes together.
Junior guard Darren White, a junior college transfer, leads all Big South players in scoring at 21.1 points per game, and senior Eric Griffin is among the league's leaders in scoring (17.6 points per game) and rebounding (8.8 per game).
"We are talented. We've got very good pieces," Laing said. "I've got to make them fit all together."