Men’s basketball team searches for identity in preseason

UNA junior guard Jeff Hodge takes a jumpshot in a preseason practice for men’s basketball. The Lions return three players from last year, including Hodge.

Basketball season is approaching, as the UNA men’s hoops team plays Martin Methodist in an exhibition game Nov. 8 in Flowers Hall.

The Lions come into this season with a different look from last year’s squad, who finished 13-16. Three players return from last year’s roster, two of whom have seen playing time, totaling eight combined career starts.

“It is a little bit of adjustment at practices,” said head coach Bobby Champagne. “You can’t assume that anybody knows what is going on because everything is new.”

Sophomore Jeff Hodge and senior John Fletcher played in all 29 games last season. Hodge and Fletcher accounted for 38.5 minutes and 12.3 points per game in 2014. Freshman Jetani Hunter was a member of the team last year, but received a redshirt.

“It’s very important that I step up and lead,” Hodge said. “We have a lot of new players. Everyone is trying to learn (a system) that they haven’t ran before.”

The Gulf South Conference coaches picked the Lions to finish seventh in the preseason poll. Champagne said he does not put much weight into the preseason polls, given the uncertainty of team quality, but rather laughs it off.

“I don’t think the coaches did a very good job of picking (the poll),” he said. “They didn’t take into account my coaching. We definitely should have been picked ninth.”

The University of Alabama-Huntsville, the defending GSC champions, received the nod as the favorite to win back-to-back years.

Coming off a season where UNA finished with nine active players, the Lions brought in 11 players during the offseason, six true freshman and five transfers.

“Every day is a new day for them,” Champagne said. “One day they are looking good, and another day they may not. That’s just how it is with freshman. Things will kind of settle down for them in January.”

Champagne mentioned junior Dimario Jackson, a transfer from Northeast Mississippi Community College, as someone who will impact the team right away. Jackson received All-American honors last season, averaging 18.9 points per game.

“We had to get some post players, some guys with some good size and some guys with some experience,” Champagne said. “We did that by bringing (the transfer players) in.”

Jackson said he is happy to be at UNA and wants to contribute in any way he can.

“It’s truly a blessing to be a part of this program and this university,” Jackson said. “With only three players returning, it’s important that we give maximum effort everyday.”

The Lions finished with a better record at home last season, going 8-5 in Flowers Hall. Champagne said the home crowd gives the team a momentum advantage each season and hopes the “Champagne Crazies” do the same in 2015.

“When you have a crowd and there’s an electricity in the air, everybody feeds off it,” Champagne said. “That’s what makes college basketball fun.”

The Lions open the regular season against Saint Leo and Tampa Nov. 13-14 in the Sunshine State Conference/GSC Challenge Classic at Tampa, Florida.