AIKEN -- Trying to utilize its speed and quickness a season ago, USC Aiken found itself depending solely on its ability to hit perimeter shots.
It didn't work.
After winning only five of 16 conference games, the Pacers went out and recruited three 6-foot-8 centers, dramatically altering the squad's makeup.
Coach Mike Roberts is hoping his squad can be a surprise team after being ranked ninth in the Peach Belt's preseason coaches poll.
"Basically, we couldn't do anything on the inside last year. We got trapped into taking a lot of three-point shots," Roberts said. "We've got some solid big guys to come in, and we should be a lot better.
"I like the chemistry of this team. They are hungry, and they're not happy about being picked the ninth-best team."
Aiken will open the season with five straight road games. The Pacers face Carson-Newman at 6 tonight in the first round of the First Southern/Pepsi Tip-Off Tournament at North Alabama.
After starting 8-0 last season, USC Aiken faltered in conference play, finishing the season 13-12 overall and 5-11 in the conference for a 10th-place finish.
"We had a lot of new guys and it took a while for them to mix with one another," Roberts said. "They know each other now and some of them have gotten even better over the off-season. We've got 10 guys who can play."
Roberts returns four starters and sixth man Michael Tyler (8.8 ppg), a 1998 South Aiken graduate. USC Aiken returns its top two scorers in 5-11 guard Dain Brown (14.4 ppg) and 6-5 forward Chris Robinson (13.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg). Both are seniors, as is starting forward Areon Atkinson (8.4 ppg).
The Pacers' lone loss from the starting five was shooting guard Corey Faggins (13.1 ppg).
Roberts added five freshman, along with Sante Fe Junior College transfer Art Salary.
While Salary is expected to step in and start at point guard, sophomore Eric Dugans also will see major minutes. And with the strong preseason play of freshman centers Mira Jonuska (6-8, 220) and Jamall Gray (6-8, 225), Roberts feels comfortable moving Robinson to his more natural forward position.
"I'm not displeased with either of those guys," Roberts said of Jonuska, a native of Lithuania and Gray, who prepped at Chester High. "With the size we have now, we can move Robinson back to a place where he can be even more productive. We've got guys who can shoot it, guys who can post, guys who can dunk, we've just got a great mix."
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