-Andy O’Brien, Assistant Editor
Last Friday, the Mississippi College men’s basketball team took on a Stephen F. Austin team that advanced to the second round of the Division I NCAA tournament a year ago. The Choctaws lost the preseason exhibition, 75-49, but competed well as a team transitioning from Division III.
MC’s grueling preseason lineup also featured games against Southern Miss and William Carey, both teams who won their conference’s regular season championship a year ago. Against Division I Southern Miss, the Choctaws grabbed a 66-65 lead on a three-pointer from Jaron Edwards with about three and a half minutes remaining. The Golden Eagles then went on a 12-2 run to win 77-68. Against NAIA (and fellow Mississippi Baptist Convention institution) William Carey, MC fought back-and-forth, and led 64-61 as the clock wound down. WCU grabbed six points in the last half minute to go on and win, 67-64.
Despite losing all three exhibition matchups, the Choctaws demonstrated that they could compete with high caliber talent. That will be important, as MC’s move back to the Gulf South Conference has the Choctaws playing a tough Division II schedule after over 15 years in the D-III American Southwest Conference. The GSC features three teams that went to the Division II NCAA tournament a year ago, including in-state rival Delta State who made it to the regional finals.
The Choctaws return four seniors from last year’s 11-14 campaign, and each of them played in at least 21 games a year ago. Emmanuel Ezejiofo highlights that senior class, after leading the team in scoring last season. Rayner Fredrick had the second most rebounds on the team, and Jay Case had the most steals. Jaron Edwards rounds out the senior class. Jared Case, who led the team in assists last season, is the lone underclass returning starter.
Because of the move back to Division II, the Choctaws were able to recruit athletes with the advantage of offering athletic scholarships for the first time in nearly two decades. The GSC has named Tristan Moore and Stacey Mack to the preseason Top Newcomers List. Mack is the second tallest Choctaw at 6-foot-7, and will be joined by McComb High School teammate Antonio Johnson. Christian Robbins is the tallest member of both the recruiting class and the team, standing at 6-foot-10. Robbins is the only center on the roster. Giancarlo Santiago may have the most interesting backstory, after growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico and transferring to MC from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
Head Coach Don Lofton carries a 178-91 record into the season. It will be his 11th season at the helm, and his 31st with the team. The Choctaws went to the ASC tournament in all but one year under his guidance, and the team has only had a losing record in only two of his ten seasons. His most successful campaign was in the 2005-2006 season, when the Choctaws went 29-2 and hosted two regional rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Before that season ended, MC made it to the “Sweet Sixteen” round for the second consecutive time.
Now back in the GSC, the Choctaws will take on old foes like Delta State, who is the preseason favorite to win the GSC. The rivals will meet in Clinton on January 17, before ending the season against each other on February 26 in Cleveland. MC will face each GSC foe twice, once at home and once on the road. West Alabama will be the first GSC opponent, and the Choctaws will host them on December 4.
Prior to starting the GSC schedule, the Choctaws will play two non-conference games. The opener will be in the A.E. Wood Coliseum at MC, as the Spring Hill College Badgers are scheduled to come to town on Friday, November 20. On the 25th, the Choctaws will cross into Jackson to take on the rival Belhaven Blazers.