Crawford: Braves unleash athleticism at ‘Madness’

First Posted: 10/17/2013

Bring on the dunkers.

That’s why we’re here right?

Thursday’s Moonlight Madness at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke meant much more than a few above the rim theatrics for a men’s basketball team intent on getting back to the Division II NCAA Tournament.

It gave students and fans their first glimpse of the Braves in the post-Shahmel Brackett and George Blakeney era, two All-Americans whose impact on the program could be felt as soon as you walked in the Jones Center.

A new floor, scorer’s table and inflatable tunnel were simply cosmetic.

“This was a pretty neat deal,” UNCP coach Ben Miller said after the Braves scrimmaged for 20 minutes in front of a near-capacity crowd. “We’re still growing toward what we want to become and the fans and community support has been great.”

Both the men’s and women’s teams trotted out to 1990s Chicago Bulls-style spotlight introductions — a first during Miller’s tenure — and held intrasquad games before capping the event with a slam dunk contest.

Jihad Wright’s between the legs rim-rattler scored perfect across the board from judges to take home top prize. He’s one of six players expected to be used in a rotational sense, possibly a spot starter, this season off a bench loaded with athleticism.

“We feel we’ve got great chemistry and everyone plays for each other,” sophomore guard Alex Bradley said. “We lost three seniors, but the expectations won’t ever change. We’re going into every game like we can win them all.”

That was the vibe in the early going Thursday night and throughout the offseason at a program overflowing with confidence and sights set on contending for a Peach Belt Conference championship. Brandon Winford, Reggie Cobia and Ben Jacobs are three returners that anchor a frontcourt poised on trying to match last season’s dominance on the glass.

One of college basketball’s fastest end-to-end guards, the PBC’s Freshman of the Year Quamain Rose is back along with Bradley and Griffin Pittman. The trio provides the Braves with distributors that can also shoulder some of the scoring load in Brackett’s absence.

The Braves don’t have a single senior this season.

“We’re pretty young, but our team has played together long enough to know what it takes to win,” Bradley said.

The 5-foot-7, gray-haired shooting guard drained five 3-pointers and finished an acrobatic layup to lead all scorers Thursday night. Bradley improved his jumper during the offseason after falling into a midseason slump as a freshman and is one of several players Miller expects to step up this season.

Others included Wilmington native Tyler Thayer, 6-foot-9 forward Tyler Kordenbrock and freakish freshman Keysheen Hinton.

“We have a lot of new faces, a lot of players some of our fans haven’t seen play yet,” Miller said. “We’re confident this is a group that can shoot it and play good defense. This is the fastest team I’ve probably ever been around.”

UNCP gets another week and a half of practice before opening the exhibition season at N.C. State on Oct. 30, the first of three straight games against Division I competition.

“We’re trying to focus on the two most important aspects of our game — rebounding and defense — before we go play,” Miller said. “It’ll take a little longer to learn the offense, but those three games against great teams presents a good opportunity. It gives our guys a chance to try and execute against great players.”

Reach staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.