As Augusta State practiced on a recent afternoon, Greg Wilson watched with a smile.
He said he's happier than he's been in a while. This despite the fact there's eight newcomers on the 14-player roster.
"This is the best group of kids I've ever had," the eighth-year coach said. "I'm excited about working with them. They bring a lot of energy, because they're so darn young.
"There are going to be days when we look really good. There are going to be days when we look pathetic. We know that."
The Lady Jaguars begin their season at 7:30 tonight against Mars Hill as part of the ASU Courtyard Classic at Christenberry Fieldhouse. USC Aiken will face Catawba in the tournament's opening game at 5:30.
Augusta State is looking to regain its 2003-04 form, when it won 24 games and advanced to the Elite Eight. Last season, the Lady Jaguars finished 13-18.
Peach Belt Conference coaches don't believe Augusta State will do much again this season. The Lady Jaguars were picked to finish 11th of 12 teams in the league's preseason poll.
One reason for low expectations from opposing coaches is that four of the team's five freshmen, including Nicole Mealing, will receive a large chunk of playing time. Mealing, a former Strom Thurmond star, is penciled in as the team's starting power forward.
"Normally, that spells trouble in the Peach Belt with that many freshmen," Wilson said. "But I think we can compete. I don't think we're 11th place in the league. If we are, we just have a league that's smoking."
If the Lady Jaguars are to improve, they will need to find more offense. Last season, they shot 38 percent from the field and averaged a league-worst 58.2 points per game.
"I think we have a lot of scorers inside and outside," said point guard Deo Ngulela, a junior college transfer. "I believe if we're boxing out in the post, we'll do good."
Senior center Shirrell Ford and senior guard Alla Batovska are the team's top two returning starters. Ford averaged 7.1 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, while Batovska added 5.5 points and 2.9 assists a game.
Ford is upbeat about the upcoming season, even if the team did lose its top three scorers from last season.
"I think we've improved a lot," she said. "We've got a lot smarter players. We've got more athletic players. It should be exciting to see everybody play together."
Ford said chemistry was a problem last season.
"We have players that are willing to learn," she said. "They want to take on responsibility."
Senior forward Taliah Roberts, who played only five games last season because of a foot injury, will return in January. Because of the 10 semester rule - she's burned nine semesters through play and redshirt seasons - Roberts chose to skip the first month and a half.
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or email@example.com.
AUGUSTA STATE LADY JAGUARS
2005-06: 13-18, 7-13 Peach Belt Conference
COACH: Greg Wilson, eighth season (102-97)
NOTES: Augusta State lost its top three scorers off last season's team that shot 38 percent from the field and averaged league-worst 58.2 points per game. Senior forward Shirrell Ford is the top returning scorer (7.1) and rebounder (7.0). Eight newcomers are part of the 14-player roster.
BOTTOM LINE: Lady Jaguars face horrid conference schedule, playing powers Columbus State, Clayton State and Georgia College & State twice in South Division. Augusta State should be more athletic than last season, and it should put up more points. But with eight underclassmen, the Lady Jaguars might be a year or two from making a serious run at another NCAA Tournament bid.[CAPTION]
Nov. 17 Mars Hill 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 18 Catawba 4
Nov. 24 Morris 5:30
Nov. 25 Voorhees 2
Nov. 27 at Paine 5:30
Nov. 30 at Newberry 6
Dec. 2 USC Aiken 2
Dec. 9 at Claflin 5:30
Dec. 16 Paine 5:30
Dec. 29 Converse 5
Jan. 4 Columbus State 5:30
Jan. 6 at USC Aiken 5:30
Jan. 10 at GC&SU 5:30
Jan. 13 USC Upstate 2
Jan. 17 at Armstrong Atlantic St. 5:30
Jan. 20 at North Georgia 3
Jan. 24 GC&SU 5:30
Jan. 27 at Francis Marion 2
Jan. 31 Armstrong Atlantic State 5:30
Feb. 3 Lander 2
Feb. 7 Clayton State 5:30
Feb. 10 at Georgia Southwestern 2
Feb. 14 at Columbus State 5:30
Feb. 17 UNC Pembroke 5:30
Feb. 21 at Clayton State 5:30
Feb. 24 Georgia Southwestern 2
Feb. 28- Peach Belt Tournament March 4 (Greenwood, S.C.)