BUIES CREEK — Taped over each player's stall in the Campbell locker room is a printout of the Big South preseason poll. The Camels, returning to the league after a 17-year absence, were picked to finish ninth - and might have been even lower without coach Robbie Laing's vote.
With two first-year starters, Campbell, coming from the Atlantic Sun, was as much an unknown to the rest of the Big South as the Camels were to themselves. At the least, though, they thought they were better than ninth.
"It was a smack in the face," junior swingman Darren White said. "Honestly, the first time I saw it, I laughed."
Sufficiently motivated, the Camels have done a good job of proving their worth so far. At 8-1 with a road win over Iowa and a home win over East Carolina, 2-0 in the Big South, Campbell's only loss came at No. 19 Creighton.
It has been a good opening month for many of North Carolina's mid-majors, with Elon beating Rutgers and South Carolina, and Davidson beating Richmond. But Campbell leads the way.
Campbell, which went into Monday's games No. 2 in the country in field-goal percentage, has averaged 81.6 points per game. Three players account for two-thirds of it: White, 6-foot-8 senior forward Eric Griffin and freshman point guard Trey Freeman.
The athletic Griffin, the centerpiece of Campbell's four-guard offense, arrived last season after attending two different junior colleges; White averaged 8.8 points per game as a freshman at James Madison, but his offers from bigger schools disappeared when he suffered a knee injury while playing for a junior college last season. Freeman was overlooked in the talent-rich Virginia tidewater but walked into practice and took over the team with a maturity Laing never expected.
The results have been impressive, even without senior guard Lorne Merthie, the team's top 3-point shooter, who is out until January with a knee injury, or 6-foot-9 forward Darius Leonard from Raleigh's Kestrel Heights Academy, a transfer from Kent State who will sit out this year after he couldn't get a hardship waiver from the NCAA.
For Laing, it's the culmination of a nine-year process that began with a total of five wins in his first two seasons at Campbell, saw the construction of a new arena to replace 947-seat Carter Gym and had its fits and starts along the way.
The Camels, who made their only NCAA tournament appearance in 1992, had a chance at the Atlantic Sun championship two years ago, but finished in a four-way tie for first instead. Last year, they started 7-3 and finished 5-16.
"All those times, we thought we were that close to turning it, and to have those things happen to us, you start to think maybe it's not going to happen - maybe this just isn't a story that's going to finish the way we want to," Laing said. "We've just kept grinding."
As the Camels prepared for their Big South opener against Liberty on Thursday, Laing arrived at the court wearing a white T-shirt on which he had written, in black magic marker, the uniform number 9, with "in the Big South" written under it.
Suitably inspired, the Camels beat Liberty by 14. Tougher challenges lie ahead, including games at Virginia Tech and N.C. State and the rest of the Big South schedule.
Still, Laing keeps the T-shirt in his desk, hoping to pull it out again at the Big South tournament, which includes the conference's top eight teams. The top seed hosts the semis and championship; if all goes really well, Laing will only have to go as far as his office to grab it when the time comes.