The Claflin University men’s basketball program enjoyed a productive 2016-17 campaign in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
The Panthers shared the East Division title with Benedict College and Clark Atlanta University. Claflin gained the division top-seed at the conference tournament as the result of its head-to-head record.
The accomplishment along with a 17-10 overall record is now part of program history. Claflin Coach Ricky Jackson must now turn his attention to the upcoming season.
“Our success last season was just another step forward for the program,” Jackson said. “As for the upcoming season, I’m excited to see the progress that our players made over the summer on their individual skills. I also want see the maturation they’ve gone through after being in the program for two and three years.”
The Panthers will enter the season as the favorite to challenge arch-rival Benedict for the East Division title. Benedict was selected to finish first in the division while Claflin was picked second by the league’s coaches and sports information directors.
Claflin was 12-5 in the SIAC last season and won both regular season meetings against Benedict.
“The East Division will be tough again,” Jackson said. “I’m sure all of the teams in the division have worked to get better and recruited student-athletes they believe will help their programs be better than last year.
"As for us, we must stay focused and control the things that we can control, like playing hard every night, defend at a high clip and execute. If we do those things, I think we will survive.”
The Panthers return three starters.
Redshirt junior Austin Lawton is the leader of the pack, averaging 10.8 points and 5.9 rebounds to go with a league-best 66 blocked shots (2.5 blk/g). He had a season-high seven blocks twice, Central State University (11/29/2016) and Lane College (12/3/2016).
The backcourt tandem of junior point guard Triston Thompson and senior shooting guard Benjamin "Tre" Williams round out the threesome.
Thompson, the Panthers' floor general, averaged nine points and 3.3 assists. He was the third-best free throw shooter in the conference last season, connecting on 84 percent. Thompson also had a career-best 11 assists last season against Morehouse College on Feb. 6.
Williams also averaged nine points per outing and tied Thompson for the most free throws in a single game last season with nine.
Other key players for Claflin are senior Jaleel Charles, who averaged 6.6 points and 4.1 rebounds; senior Albert “Trey” Miller, the top returning three-point shooter with 30; and sophomore Kobie Williams, who had 18 three-pointers.
Two other key components for the Panthers will be senior guard Tyler Thompson and newcomer Alex Brown.
Claflin will play a 27-game schedule that includes teams from four different NCAA Division II conferences, six non-conference matchups and 13 home games.
"This schedule will surely be a tough test for us early and will prepare us for conference play,” Jackson said. "We are taking on top-tier teams and I'm anxious to see how we measure up."
Claflin will open the regular season at home this weekend, playing host to the Gulf South Conference (GSC)/SIAC Challenge at Tullis Arena inside the Jonas T. Kennedy Health and Physical Education Center.
Action gets underway Friday when Benedict takes on Montevallo at 5:30 p.m. followed by the Auburn-Montgomery/Claflin matchup at 7:30.
On Saturday, Benedict meets Auburn-Montgomery at 1:30 p.m. and Claflin battles Montevallo at 3:30 p.m.
Claflin will then host Young Harris out of the Peach Belt Conference on Nov. 18 for its annual homecoming game before hitting the road for its next seven contests.