On the heels of three consecutive Division II Elite Eight appearances, Augusta State men's basketball team has transformed into a national power.
Despite the departure of all five senior starters off this past season's 29-4 squad, Augusta State coach Dip Metress said expectations are still high. And that presents a predicament.
"Good players," he said, "are hard to find."
Recruiting season continued in full force last Thursday, the day after Augusta State lost to Bentley in the Elite Eight. After returning from Springfield, Mass., to Augusta, Metress spent Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., and Sunday in Baltimore looking for the next great Jaguar.
With the departure of All-American guard Ben Madgen, all-region forward Fred Brathwaite, all-conference center Alex Smith, all-conference guard Daniel Dixon and forward Greg Hire, Augusta State loses 82 percent of its offensive production and 69 percent of its rebounding. Also, backup point guard Dominic Morra will not return next season.
"We need to hit some home runs with this class," said Metress, who plans to sign at least six players, maybe seven.
Metress said the five seniors were owners in regards to the program. Now, the five remaining players need to change their status.
"We've got five guys returning who need to be owners and not renters," he said. "The reason for our success is because we didn't have too many squatters."
In this year's recruiting class, which will begin to take shape within the next month and could run through August, Metress said he's looking for impact players without compromising the future. If he brings in seven players, he doesn't want all junior college players or all high school seniors. Instead, he's seeking a balance -- if he signs seven players, at least three (possibly four) will be high school seniors.
Augusta State has received a verbal commitment from point guard O'Neal Braden, a 5-foot-6 sophomore at Cleveland State (Tenn.) Community College. Braden, named his league's most valuable player and top defensive player, averaged 21.6 points a game on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 48 percent from the perimeter.
Braden is expected to ink his name April 14 on National Signing Day. Metress, who said he's in talks with two Australians, might have another signee that day as well.