At the conclusion of every Paine College practice, the Lions gather together in a circle and shout out this season's mantra: National champs.
"We're shooting for the stars," senior forward Lamario Latson said.
Conventional wisdom says the planets would have to align for the Lions to reach that lofty goal. Paine has advanced to the NCAA Division II Tournament just three times the past quarter-century.
Last year, Paine finished two games above .500, but there's better chemistry and on-court play this season.
Paine's 14 players now know their particular parts. Latson, senior forward Chris Jackson and junior guards Brian Harper and Daniel Lomax make up the core of the role players.
Latson is the team's Dennis Rodman, whose sole responsibility is rebounding. Jackson, with his potent hook shot, gives Paine an inside scoring threat. Harper and Lomax are mirror images, slashers who also can beat teams from the perimeter.
"On any successful team, every player must realize what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they can make the team better," Paine coach Ron Spry said. "I feel like these young men and their teammates recognize that all of them play a crucial role in the success of the team."
Well, the Lions are off to a roaring start. The preseason pick to win in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Paine sits at 3-1 with a pair of SIAC wins and a victory over rival Augusta State.
Harper, Jackson, Latson and Lomax have all played their parts beautifully.
Jackson dumped a team-high 14 points on Augusta State. Lomax and Harper shouldered the scoring burden with 15 apiece against Kentucky State. Harper then broke out for a career-best 30 against Lane College.
"That was really amazing," Lomax said. "There's no reason (Harper) can't do that every night. He showed he's unstoppable. He dunked it. He made 3s. He went to the line and hit his free throws. He had a complete game.
"That did nothing but inspire me."
You'll find little selfishness between Lomax and Harper, who grew up 10 minutes from each other outside of Stone Mountain, Ga.
The two played AAU ball together and entered Paine at the same time.
When Lomax was named to the preseason all-conference second team, Harper was one of the first to congratulate him.
"There's no reason to pull each other down," said Harper, who's averaging a team-best 17.6 points despite missing the season opener against Augusta State. "We got to play together."
The entire team spends large chunks of time with each other. The players stay in the same dorm. They play Playstation2 games. They go out to eat together. They go to church together.
"The closer we are off the court, the better we're going to play on the court," Harper said. "We're a lot alike. We have the same morals. Coach instills in us the same things."
There's little flashiness among the team. Just check out the nicknames. Lomax is "D Lo," while Harper simply is "Harp." Latson is called "L." And Jackson?
"Everybody just calls me Chris," he said. "I'm pretty simple. Plain Jane."
Of the four, Latson plays the Plain Jane brand of ball. He doesn't care to score, just rebound.
This season, he's averaging a team-best 7.3 rebounds per game and also led the team last season (8.5).
Although the psychology major won't score 30 points in a game this season, Harper, Jackson and Lomax said they don't need to feed their egos by doing so themselves.
"We can both go out there Saturday (against Augusta State) and each score five points and win," Harper said, "and that'll be just fine."
Of course, the three will get their points during the season. It's just a matter of Harper, Jackson and Lomax playing their best during the same games.
If that happens, maybe a national championship won't be so far-fetched.
"We're still winning, but everybody's not clicking at the same time," Lomax said."It's just a matter of time."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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