PEMBROKE — Sweat weighed down the practice jerseys of each player representing The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team Sunday inside the English E. Jones Center.
The grind of October, full of lengthy preseason practices, has arrived for a Braves squad looking to build off its historic 2016-17 campaign.
Claiming a share of the Peach Belt Conference regular-season title and then following it up with a win in the PBC tournament championship, the Braves marked off two new accomplishments for the program, capping a 24-8 season with a fourth appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, a new journey begins.
“These next few weeks, when you’re practicing 2 1/2 hours, plus weights, it can wear on them a little bit physically and mentally,” said head coach Ben Miller, who is entering his 10th season with the Braves.
“This time of year the practices are a little longer so they have to sustain. Then, obviously, it gets more fun when you start playing the games. Practices aren’t quite as long, but the first couple of weeks is really where you build the foundation for your team.”
Coming off their third 20-win season under Miller, the Braves return four of their top five scorers from last season, including Brandon Watts and Nigel Grant.
The senior duo let their voices be heard for UNCP in its first official practice of the 2017-18 season, which Miller graded as a “C-plus, B-minus” performance.
“At times our energy was really good. I thought our veterans, Watts and Nigel, in particular, stood out with their effort. I need those guys to set the tone,” Miller said.
“The young guys are trying to figure it out a little bit. … they all show flashes of what they’re capable of and then they show flashes of being freshman. Overall, it’s a pretty good start. We just have to try to get a little bit better every day.”
A quartet of freshman guards — David Strother, Cam Hamilton, Tyrell Kirk and Jamal Bryant — will look to help fill the void left by the veteran trio of Alex Bradley, Mike Smith and all-American Quamain Rose.
“You look at the young guys and you want to fast forward that progression, but you can’t always do that,” Miller said. “Sometimes they’re going to have some growing pains. They’re all good kids and I think we have a good group of veterans to help them along. And all of the young guys are fitting in pretty well. We told them it’s their job to catch up to the veterans.”
Miller said he’s been impressed with the team’s growth entering the new season, with players like Grant and redshirt sophomore Jeff McIlwain showing up noticeably slimmer from their work during the offseason.
“I’m pleased with the conditioning,” Miller said. “Guys like Nigel, JB (James Murray-Boyles) and Jeff really came back in better condition over the summer and were able to build on that this fall. Brandon Watts came back stronger. All of the returners, I thought, made progress in some key areas, whether it’s conditioning, strength or skill development.”
Fans will have their first chance to see the Braves on Thursday during their midnight-madness style event at 7 p.m. on Lumbee Guranty Bank court. UNCP’s first exhibition game is set for Oct. 26 against the All-Army team.
“Hopefully we’ll have a great turnout. In years past, I think we’ve had 2,000 people for Moonlight Madness,” Miller said. “It’s a fun night for our team and the women’s team to kind of introduce the new players and get re-acquainted with the old ones.”
“The biggest thing is to have fun on Thursday night. Hopefully in the scrimmage, we’ll get a little of the jitters out playing in front of a crowd.“
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.