Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- There's something special about this year's men's basketball team at Albany State.

Something that goes beyond the Rams' current 0-2 record and last season's 14-15 mark and 14th place finish in conference as they head into their third game tonight at Valdosta State.

Head coach Chris Cameron can sense it.

"I like the way the team looks this year. The focus has been there, the attitude is great. So we have a lot of characteristics of a championship team," said Cameron, who coached the Rams team that beat Fort Valley State, 54-50, in the SIAC Championship three years ago. "This team really mirrors the team that won it in '07. A lot of the same kind of personalities. The talent's about the same -- but not more -- than we had in '07."

That was Cameron's first year as ASU's head coach after a few years as an assistant. He remembers it well, and couldn't help comparing that squad to the one he has now, which had a strong showing in a recent Florida tournament, despite losing both its games.

"They're looking good. We had two tough games (last) weekend and we just want to see if we could make improvements from our exhibition games, which we did, so that's good that we're growing," said Cameron, who was a three-time All-State selection and Player of the Year at Dougherty, and went on to play four years of pro ball. "We played real good the first game against Florida Tech, which has a really good team -- they have one guy who's getting looks from NBA teams and overseas, a 6-foot-9 guy -- and we took that team to the wire at their place, had a chance to win and lost by four. Our last possession, we didn't really execute, but we held them on the defensive end, so we look pretty good."

Cameron than added: "We just have to get some scoring going, but the defense is looking good. That's how we want to play, to put ourselves in a good position to win by playing good defense."

The Rams have basically one and a half returning starters. Wing Mario Morris is the only full-time returning starter -- he's also the team's returning leading scorer at 10 points per game -- but he hasn't played yet this regular season because of a knee problem.

Also returning is point guard Jonathan "J.J." Hines, who started some last year, especially toward the end.

"We have a new team this year, but I think we're going to be pretty good. We had some people that came in from junior college and (Demarcus Blunt) from Grambling (State), so I think so far, so good," Hines said. "I think we showed well down there in Florida. We lost two hard games, but we played pretty good and everybody came to play. We just came up short, and also we didn't have Mario."

In addition to the 6-5, 215-pound Blunt -- who is the team's starting small forward -- Marcus Benitez, De'Andre Johnson and Brian Thornton joined the team as transfers. Benitez is a junior college transfer from Waycross, Johnson is from Valdosta State and went to high school at Randolph-Clay, while Thornton transferred from Chatahoochee Valley.

"Right now, those four have been contributing pretty well for us," Cameron said. "Benitez (led in) scoring (the first game), Johnson led us in scoring the second game, Blunt was the second-leading scorer for both games so we're getting some production from our new guys."

But the team needs a consistent leader while Morris is out, according to Cameron.

"These guys are in a situation now where we're searching for someone to step up and be someone we can go to," Cameron said. "Our returning leading scorer is out, so other people have to step up and we need to see if we can count on them. Overall, though, I think we're playing as a team."

Morris is still waiting for MRI results, so the team is hoping it's nothing serious. But players say they can't focus on that, especially when they have a game today at Valdosta State.

"It's more like motivation," Blunt said. "This summer, we've been doing a lot of running and (practicing) and we've just really come together. .. (so) I feel we can be OK, we just have to get a little tougher. If we do that, we'll (do fine)."

Blunt also said the fact there weren't any Rams on the SIAC All-Conference preseason teams adds motivation, but Cameron said those rankings and teams don't mean much.

"To me, honestly I think that's something that's not really big in our league, on this level," Cameron said. "I think that in Division I it's more consistent because those coaches and sports writers really research the teams, see who's coming in and and make predictions on them. (In our conference), sometimes you don't even know if that team is going to have the same players due to getting fired by the coach or transferring or whatever. So we don't really look too much into that, we just want to make sure that when we start playing we can put ourselves in position to be one of the top teams in the league."

The player agreed, and are ready to get this show on the road.

"Right now, I think they have us at No. 6 (predicted finish in the SIAC) and we don't have anybody on the first team or second team," Hines said. "But after the season's over, everything should (speak) for itself."