Rattlers ready for tough season

The men’s basketball season begins with no easy task as the Rattlers travel to East Lansing to strike the Michigan State University Spartans tonight.

The Spartans, ranked No. 13 by the Associated Press and No. 10 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, are seemingly tough opponents. But the Rattlers are returning several players from last season’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship team, including five seniors.

Predicted to finish fourth in the MEAC, the Rattlers are already in unfamiliar territory in comparison to last year’s team.

“Terrence Woods and Demarcus Wilkins accounted for over 35 points a game last season. They were ranked fourth in the country as far as a graduating scoring duos,” said Assistant Head Coach Mike Gillespie Jr.

The loss of such scoring potency would hinder even the best teams in the nation, but the pre-season predictions do not bother the Rattlers.

“I think the predictions are accurate,” Gillespie said.

South Carolina State University and Coppin State University were co-MEAC champions last season, and both teams returned several players from last year’s roster. South Carolina, in particular, returned Thurman Zimmerman, the 2003-2004 MEAC Player of the Year and the 2004-2005 preseason First-Team All-Conference player, who torched the Rattlers for 40 points last season at Gaither Gymnasium.

Getting accustomed to each other is the task at hand for the Rattlers.

“South Carolina State returns everyone,” s Gillespie said.

Friday’s game matches the Rattlers against another team of historic national prominence. Michigan State has been the launch pad for such NBA players as Morris Peterson, Zach Randolph, Jason Richardson and hall-of-famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson. This season, the Spartans are led by 6-foot-11-inch center Paul Davis, a 2004 John R. Wooden Award Preseason All-American and MSU’s leader in rebounding and scoring.

“I’m hoping to play well enough to help the team win,” said Darius Glover, a transfer from Olney Central College in Illinois. “Really, the goal of the trip is to get better individually as a player as well as a team.”

The trip refers to the Rattlers traveling to Champagne, Ill. Sunday to play the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois, ranked No. 5 in the Coaches Poll.

“We’re not going there to lose,” forward Michael Ayodele said. “There are members of the team from last year who remember (the game against) Kentucky, and that one was a sprint up and down in effort to get back on defense. We expect more or less the same tempo of play.”

If the Rattlers are going to slay early season dragons like MSU, the team’s health, or lack thereof, is an important variable in the mix.

“We have not had one practice where everyone was active and healthy,” Gillespie said.

Injuries have slowed down team chemistry with its occurrences to top team players such as Tony Tate, Jonathan Kelly and Michael Harper.

“The early season will definitely prepare us for this year’s MEAC schedule, and then we’ll return to the NCAA tournament,” Glover said.

Florida A&M University has picked up just two first-place votes and 306 total points after winning the 2004 MEAC Championship. Hampton University, led by 6-foot-7-inch senior guard Devin Green, have been picked to finish just ahead of the Rattlers at third in the conference, followed by Delaware State University, Norfolk State University, Morgan State University, Bethune-Cookman College, Howard University and University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

“We care about where we are at the end of the season,” Ayodele said.

“We’re going to let our play speak for itself, you don’t earn pre-season rankings they’re basically politics.”

Contact Troy Weatherspoon at troy1weatherspoon@famu.edu.