When he was hired in September as USC Aiken head women's basketball coach, Mike Brandt stepped into a nearly perfect situation.
The Lady Pacers return four starters from last season's 22-6 squad, including first-team, all-Peach Belt Conference guards Jami Cornwell and Julie Szabo. Szabo led the Lady Pacers with 17 points a game last sea son, while Cornwell averaged five assists a game with 70 steals.
"Maybe two all-conference guards and an all-conference center would've been ideal," Brandt said, joking. "No, it really is an ideal situation. I want to be sure to make the most of the situation."
The situation is this: the No. 7-ranked Lady Pacers are looking to defend their Peach Belt regular season title and make a return trip to the NCAA Division II playoffs, where they were ousted from the first round by North Carolina Central, 79-61.
"That's on our minds," Cornwell said of a return trip to the Division II playoffs. "But right now, we're just trying to focus on our conference games."
USC Aiken (2-1) began its season in the Disney Division II Tip-Off Classic two weeks ago. The Lady Pacers play their home opener Friday in the nightcap of the Four Seasons Women's Basketball Tip-Off Classic against Voorhees College at 7:30.
Last season, Phil Stern led USC Aiken into uncharted territory. Stern led the Lady Pacers to their first Peach Belt title and their first postseason appearance. After the season, he left to become the head coach of Division I University of Maryland Baltimore County.
When Stern left, so did his fire-and-brimstone style of coaching. The six returning seniors are still getting used to the milder-mannered Brandt.
"It's a lot different adjusting to him," Cornwell said. "He's not the type of coach who's up all the time yelling and really into the game. But he has a way of getting across his point without the yelling."
FOR THE USC Aiken men, sixth-year coach Mike Roberts had to make only one change: replace first-team, all-conference guard Clint Keown. Keown led the conference in scoring with 24.7 points per game.
"I think we replaced him with three or four guys who all can score," Roberts said. "I don't think we have anyone with any regularity who's going to score 24, 25 points a game. But we do have several newcomers who are capable of scoring 20 a game."
Roberts added Winthrop transfer guard Bryant Latimer, along with junior transfers Lee Burton, Minda Statkus and Martynas Valaitis.No freshmen are on the team.
USC Aiken, which finished 12-16 last season, has 11 upperclassmen on the roster. Three upperclassmen are returning starters: senior guard Eric Dugans (8.5 points per game, 141 assists), junior guard B.J. Ivey (3.7 ppg) and junior forward Todd Williams (10.1 ppg, 5.5 rebounds per game).
"We finally have some depth and maturity on this team," Roberts said.
Roberts said he feels like the team is defensively sound. He hopes that good defense translates into more points.
"I feel like we can put some pressure on some people and create some easy offense," Roberts said. "I don't know if we got many easy baskets last year. Every trip up the floor, it was a struggle (to score)."
CONFERENCE: Peach Belt
2001-02 RECORD: 12-16 (7-12 conference)
2001-02 POSTSEASON: lost to Clayton State, 77-61, in second round of Peach Belt Conference Tournament.
COACH: Mike Roberts, sixth season
RETURNING STARTERS: G Eric Dugans (6-0, 169, Sr.); G B.J. Ivey (6-4, 181, Jr.); F Todd Williams (6-8, 187, Jr.).
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: G/F Leroy Williams (6-5, 179, So.); G Bryant Latimer (6-0, 167, Jr.); G Lee Burton (6-1, 165, Jr.), C Mira Jonuska (6-8, 245, Jr.).
NOTES: The Pacers have a veteran group with three starters and seven returners. ... USC Aiken has no freshmen on the team. ... Dugans (8.5 ppg, 141 assists) and Williams (10.1 ppg, 61 blocks) were the second- and third-leading scorers on the team last season behind Clint Keown (24.7). ... USC Aiken has tough non-conference games against Carson-Newman (Nov. 26, home; Jan. 4, away), the College of Charleston (Dec. 7, road) and Belmont Abbey (Dec. 20, home).
BOTTOM LINE: The Pacers were picked to finish ninth in the pre-season by the league's coaches. Don't be surprised if USC Aiken finishes better than the poll's prediction. USC Aiken will have to make up for the loss of Keown's absence on offense. But the Pacers should be solid on defense. Like Augusta State, if USC Aiken can survive its non-conference slate it could be a dangerous team around conference tournament time.
CONFERENCE: Peach Belt
2001-02 RECORD: 22-6 (16-3 conference); won conference regular-season title.
2001-02 POSTSEASON: lost to Georgia College & State, 69-60, in first round of conference tournament. Lost to North Carolina Central, 79-61, in first round of NCAA Division II Tournament.
COACH: Mike Brandt, first year
RETURNING STARTERS: G Jami Cornwell (5-8, Sr.); G Julie Szabo (5-7, Sr.); F Allison Nold (5-11, Jr.); C Jen Kennedy (5-11, Sr.).
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: F Katie Gebhardt (5-11, So.); G Katie Rokus (5-5, Sr.); G Katie Palizza (5-5, Sr.); G Sarah Kendrick (5-7, Jr.).
NOTES: USC Aiken returns the best backcourt in the conference in Peach Belt first-team all-conference guards Cornwell and Szabo. ... Szabo led the team with 83 3-pointers and an 88.6 free-throw percentage last season. ... The Lady Pacers are riding a 14-game home winning streak. ... USC Aiken is 24-2 at home the past two seasons. ... The Lady Pacers are currently ranked No. 7 in the nation.
BOTTOM LINE: With four starters returning, Brandt walked into an ideal situation at USC Aiken. With the addition of Kendrick, USC Aiken may be even more solid that last season. Look for the Lady Pacers to successfully defend their Peach Belt regular season championship and advance to the NCAA Division II playoffs again.
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 114.