Basketball (M)

Favored Indians feel no pressure to repeat

By Ronnie Gallagher, The Salisbury Post A lot of basketball coaches see their team picked to finish first in the conference and cringe. They want no part of it. And then, there is Catawba men’s coach Jim Baker. His Indians, coming off a national playoff invitation and a 25-5 record, have been chosen as the preseason favorite in the South Atlantic Conference and he couldn’t be happier.We’ve been picked first before,” he said matter-of-factly. “And we’ve won. I think pressure is what you put on yourself.” Baker is putting none on his troops because he feels he doesn’t have to. He returns all of the key ingredients except Ned Gusic, who graduated to the Italian pro league. Gusic is a big loss but there is enough talent to offset it. Think about these returning players: Terrence Hamilton was on his way to an all-SAC year before breaking his leg early in the season. Brian Carter was second-team all-SAC. Duke Phipps and Alex Luyk made the All-SAC freshman team. Kevin Petty was named SAC Tournament MVP. Baker’s confidence with this group also comes from how it overcame adversity last year. There were a couple of discipline problems to deal with, and, of course, Hamilton’s injury in a loss to Wingate. “I was laying in bed after Terrence’s injury wondering how we’d win another game,” Baker recalled. “But the guys really pulled together.” Hamilton’s leg has healed and he is much stronger, according to Baker. “He could put up big numbers,” Baker said. “He talked about redshirting this season and I told him, ‘You can if you want to. But the future is now.’ I think he has a great chance for some postseason awards.” With Hamilton stronger, he may move inside to the big forward spot and let Carter, a 6-foot-7 leaper, play more small forward. “Terrence needs to be under the basket so he can do his little wiggles and spin moves,” Baker said. Hamilton, out of Dillon, S.C., was averaging 14 points and seven rebounds per game when he went down and should better those totals. Carter, a junior who really stepped up in Hamilton’s absence, finished at 13.5 points and six rebounds. The Alexandria, Va. native had 45 blocked shots. “I really want to get Brian and Terrence on the floor at the same time,” said Baker. Then add Luyk, a 6-9 transfer from Georgia Tech, who has added bulk and heightened his confidence level. Like Carter, he blossomed late in the year, averaging 9.0 points and 5.3 rebounds. He was among the SAC leaders with 53 blocked shots. He has added a nice jump hook to his arsenal. “He has an uncanny ability to wait for you to put the ball up,” said Baker, who attributes that to his father being a coach in Spain and Luyk getting the chance to practice against the men. “He plays like a 30-year-old pro in Europe. He plays well within himself. “Alex is stronger and has filled out more. He has a chance to be one of the better post players.” And get this. Luyk also drained 13 three-pointers last season. Setting everything up are Phipps and Petty, who have blazing speed to go with solid talent. Petty, a junior, is 5-7 while sophomore Phipps is pushing six feet. “I’ve got a bunch of little smurfs running around out there,” smiled Baker. The two guards combined for 19 points and six assists per game and 90 steals on the season. Petty gives you that Muggsy Bogues problem. “You can’t press him,” Baker said. “He just has that knack. He wears everybody out except Duke.” Baker expects Petty to increase last season’s 10.7 ppg. “I’ve always let the point guard score,” he said, referring to the likes of Marvin Moore and Art Wade. Unlike those two, however, Petty isn’t loud. He lets his feet run, not his mouth. “You won’t even know he’s around,” Baker said. As scary as it sounds, Phipps may be faster. “He can dominate you out front,” Baker said. He is shooting fairly well and he can get to the front of the rim.” Hamilton, Carter, Luyk, Petty and Phipps are the best starting five in the league. Now, Baker needs his reserves to step up and he thinks one could be Britt Jernigan, a former long-range bomber from North Stanly High. The lefty is a redshirt sophomore. “He had a hard transition from high school,” Baker said. “In college, you can’t just stand out there and shoot. But he has probably worked himself into the rotation. He shoots quick and he’ll put it up.” Another North Stanly product, Quentin Bryant, is back for his senior season. He was a defensive stalwart last year and nothing should change. “As the game goes on and we get the lead, he’ll be in there,” said Baker. Jacob Parks is a — believe it or not — sixth-year senior, who will back up the inside guys. “He is big and physical and can rebound,” Baker said. “He’s a great kid.” Other guards for Baker are Byron Whitehead, JarMark Parker and B.J. Robertson. Robertson, a senior from High Point Central, started some last season. Inside, Baker can call on 6-7 Reggie Proctor and 6-5 Chris “Chief” Everett. And then, there’s prize recruit Robert Owens, a 6-5 guard from New Jersey who had some big scoring nights in high school and could work his way into the rotation, as well. “Being picked to win it will keep us focused,” Baker said. “The challenge is taking those 15 different characters and winning with them.” On paper, it looks like the SAC coaches think Baker can do just that. #####

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