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Men’s basketball looks to adjust to stability

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Men’s basketball looks to adjust to stability

After playing two exhibition games to prep for the new year, the UNCW men’s basketball team opens up their regular-season schedule tomorrow at Iowa.

After playing two exhibition games to prep for the new year, the UNCW men’s basketball team opens up their regular-season schedule tomorrow at Iowa.

After playing two exhibition games to prep for the new year, the UNCW men’s basketball team opens up their regular-season schedule tomorrow at Iowa.

After playing two exhibition games to prep for the new year, the UNCW men’s basketball team opens up their regular-season schedule tomorrow at Iowa.

McLeod Brown | Sports Editor

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When the UNC Wilmington men’s basketball team tips off their regular season tomorrow at Iowa, the team will be able to look at each other and find something that hasn’t been present in recent years.

Stability.

The Seahawks return five of their top six scorers from last year, and 13 players overall as they return to NCAA and CAA postseason eligibility following a one-year ban due to academic ineligibility.

After the 2011-12 squad included eight incoming freshmen, last year’s team bred the same unfamiliarity when three of those freshmen chose to redshirt their first year, joining two junior college transfers, three walk-ons, and another freshman in their first true season of eligibility.

This year’s Seahawks only welcome four new players to the fold, a sigh of relief for a team that has found it tough sledding in adjusting to so many new faces in the past.

However, that does not mean this year’s newcomers are any less important. If anything, their ability to adapt quickly and perform at a high level will be key in producing a successful season for UNCW, especially considering the loss of the school’s No. 4 all-time leading scorer and top rebounder in Keith Rendleman.

“I told these guys I want them to continue to play hard, that’s important,” said Coach Buzz Peterson at the team’s media day.  “We play smart, we play together, that’s something we’ve talked a lot about. We’ve got to get the new guys involved. We have an opportunity with three or four new guys that could play a lot for us that weren’t even here last year. It gives the ball club a whole different look to a lot of people.”

The players Peterson speaks of are a trio of transfers: guard Ben Eblen, and forwards Yemi Makanjoula and Addison Spruill, who are joined by freshman Chuck Ogbodo.

Heading that list of impact new players is the graduate student Eblen. After playing three seasons at point guard for the University of Alabama, Eblen sat out last season while searching for a school he could earn more playing time at.

Considered a defensive specialist for the Crimson Tide, Eblen averaged 8.2 minutes per game in 92 career games from 2009-12.

In choosing UNCW as the place where he wants to end his collegiate career, Eblen enters as arguably already the most experienced player on a team that only graduated two seniors from last year.

“It’s definitely different, but I’m just trying to share some of my experiences,” Eblen said of the transition. “I’ve been through a lot, obviously being at Alabama I’ve seen a lot. I’m just trying to be a leader even though I haven’t been around them [UNCW players] as much. It’s been a real smooth transition; they’re a great group of guys.”

Making the move easier for Eblen is his reconnection with senior Chris Dixon, who played with Eblen at Alabama for the 2009-10 before departing for Redlands Community College, then joining UNCW last year.

The duo’s history is a story in itself, one they’ll look to put a successful ending to in each of their final years at UNCW.

“It’s awesome to reunite with him,” Eblen said. “That’s a good dude off the court. He’s helped me majorly in the transition.”

“We can do good things on the court,” Dixon added. “Both of us play more so we can both make plays and get our teammates in better positions to score.”

With Rendleman’s graduation, Dixon returns as the Seahawks’ leading scorer after he averaged nearly 10 points per game last year, along with the second most minutes per game on the team with nearly 28 each contest.

After playing the point guard spot last year, Dixon, along with the rest of the team’s backcourt, will look to be able to move off the ball more with Eblen’s arrival. Eblen was coveted during his recruitment for his pass-first mindset, something UNCW lacked last season in averaging 14.3 turnovers per game, and their -2.27 turnover margin ranking ninth in the CAA.

The Seahawks will need their guards to step up in the wake of a thin frontcourt to open up the season.

Junior Cedrick Williams, redshirt sophomore Dylan Sherwood, and senior Shane Reybold begin this season as the only three returning “big men” that contributed much last season.

Williams, who has started 46 out of his 61 games at UNCW, is on the way to finishing as the team’s second-leading rebounder the past two years, will be looked as the primary post player for the team.

More so than being a creator in the block, however, Williams will more than likely be the main man in the middle when the Seahawks choose to run a “small” lineup this season, something they could experiment with early and often.

The proposed small-ball strategy will allow the team to space the floor more often this season, an idea that has shown up in its practices.

“I’m seeing a lot of determination and hard work [in practice],” said Ponder (8.5 ppg), the team’s third leading scorer from a year ago. “We’re getting after it every day in practice, a lot of hard work. It’s more competitive than it’s ever been, which makes everyone work that much harder because of all the competition we have.”

Entering his fourth year as coach of the Seahawks with a record of 33-59, Peterson has in fact led the Seahawks to higher-than-predicted finishes in each of his three years. A year ago, after the team was picked to finish last in the conference in the annual pre-season poll, UNCW finished ninth in the league with a 10-20, 5-14 record.

This year, picked to finish eighth in the newly-reformed nine-team CAA, Peterson and his team hope to go one step further than just proving the doubters wrong.

“I want to do better in the CAA,” Peterson said. “It’s changed a lot since I first came here. Lot of new teams and lot of good teams have left, so hopefully we can take advantage of that and move up the ladder a little. We’ve always been picked towards the end and we’ve always proven we’re a little bit better than that so I’m hopeful we can work our ways up there towards the top third.”

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Men’s basketball looks to adjust to stability