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Sunshine State Conference Gears Up for Competitive Season

By J.R. Robertson


All indications point to a competitive three-team race in the Sunshine State Conference for the 2003-2004 season.  Rollins College, Eckerd College and Florida Southern College have all earned top 25 rankings in the NCAA Division II Bulletin Preseason National Poll with Rollins leading the way in the seventh position.


While Rollins finished the 2002-2003 regular season as the conference champion with only one conference loss, they proceeded to drop a 81-68 decision to Florida Southern in the finals of the conference tournament and then have their season ended by Eckerd in the NCAA South Region finals.


The Tars lost a big piece of last year’s championship team with the graduation of starting guard and SSC MVP Matt Williams, but all four of the other starters return, maintaining a balanced attack for head coach Tom Klusman.  The Tars finished last season as the top ranked team in the South Region coaches’ poll, and, with the return of ten letterman, look to pick up right where they left off. 


Senior Chad Dircks will be counted on to lead the Tars from his position at power forward, as he did last season with 12.2 ppg and 6.0 rpg.  Chad poses considerable match-up problems for opponents as he is able to consistently score with his back to the basket and is also very accurate from the perimeter, connecting on over 46% of his three point attempts last season. 


Junior point guard Eric Faber averaged 11.1 points and a conference leading 4.9 assists last season for the Tars and will be counted on to keep Klusman’s tough motion offense moving in an effective manner.  He possesses excellent court vision and can make opponents pay for not respecting his shot as he proved by pouring in 29 points in a game against the University of Tampa last season.


The Tars line-up will be rounded out by senior forward Donald Banks, Junior Center Placide Muhizi, and, in all likelihood, Lex Brown will step in for Williams at shooting guard.  Banks, who commonly plays the role of the unsung hero, brings intensity to the Rollins defense and has constantly proven throughout his career that he knows how to win.  Muhizi averaged 11.1 points last season, and shot an accurate 53 percent from the field. 


Many in the conference consider Eckerd College to be the most likely team to dethrone Rollins as conference champions.  The Tritons ended last season with an impressive postseason run that took them to the Elite-8.  Head coach Tom Ryan’s squad is hoping to take last season’s momentum and experience and turn it into a similar run in 2004.


Eckerd returns three starters from last year’s team, led by senior guard Sharrod McCree.  McCree averaged 13.5 ppg last season and will be counted on for his experience and leadership.  Forwards Marcus Bryany (12.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Jay Washington (10 ppg) will also return to a starting line-up that seems to peak at the right time each season.


The Tritons will try to compensate for the loss of South Region Tournament MVP Kendrick Wilson and All-SSC Tournament team member Cerwin Thompson with an impressive duo of newcomers: Craig Hazel and Greg Plummer.  Hazel, a 6’5” post player, joins Eckerd after an impressive prep career at Miami Pace High School where he averaged 17 ppg and 14 rpg en route to being named to the first team All-State.  Plummer is coming off of a junior college season at Sage College of Albany where he led his team with 21 ppg. 


The entire SSC will be watching closely when the Tritons travel to Winter Park, Florida, to take on Rollins in their conference opener on January 3.


No one will be watching closer than reigning conference tournament champion Florida Southern who returns just two starters from last year.  The Moccasins will be led by senior guard Chris Brooks, a member of last year’s All-SSC Tournament Team.  Brooks ranked second on the team with 12.1 ppg last season as he served primarily as the Mocs’ sixth man. 


As Southern’s only returning starters Ellery Boykin and Terence Thomas will be counted on to provide leadership this season.  Boykin led the team averaging 4.1 assists last season and will continue to start as the court general for the Mocs.  The 6’10” Thomas will be counted on to battle inside on both ends of the court.


The rest of the Sunshine State Conference will be aggressively chasing this trio of nationally ranked teams as the season gets underway Saturday, November 15.  The University of Tampa and Lynn University appear to have the best chance of breaking into the top three in the conference standings, while Barry University, Florida Tech, and St. Leo University have their work cut out for them. 


Tampa returns ten players from a team that finished 15-12 last season.  Key returners include senior forward Achille Ngiunon, who led the conference in rebounding last season, and senior guard Ernest Williams (8.2 ppg).  Another pleasant sight for Spartan fans will be the return of senior forward James Mereus.  Last season Mereus was averaging 14 points and 9.3 rebounds a game before succumbing to a season ending injury.


Lynn was the only team other than Rollins to beat each of Florida Southern and Eckerd last season and is the only team in the conference that returns all five starters from a year ago.  Head coach Scott McMillan enters his first year with the Fighting Knights leading a host of experienced players.  Justin Wingard, a All-SSC first team selection last year, has the potential to challenge for conference player of the year as he looks to improve on his averages of 13.1 ppg and 7.6 rpg.   


Barry University and coach Cesar Odio may be facing a rebuilding year as they lost all but one starter from last year’s team. 


Florida Tech has the potential to make a move in the standings following last season’s last place finish behind a 1-13 conference record.  A trio of sophomores that made up three-fifths of last year’s SSC All-Freshman team, including last year’s SSC Freshman of the Year Titas Vainauskas, make the Panthers a young but experienced team that could surprise an opponent if not taken seriously.


Finally Saint Leo returns three starters from last year’s team, and should again be led by 6’5” forward, Larry Henderson.


With three team’s ranked in the top-25 heading into the 2003-2004 season, the Sunshine State Conference is hoping to make another strong showing in post season play with each teams goal of making the long trip to California for the Elite-8 in March.



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