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As the primary commentator for this sites’ basketball broadcasts, I will be following the boys’ basketball team closely all year. With all the time I’ll be spending covering and analyzing the Lancers, I figured I might as well document my thoughts throughout the season in a weekly blog. To this end, I now present to you the first edition of the Basketball Blog.
Last night the Lancers survived a scrappy, low-scoring battle with the Bishop McGuiness Irish, winning their third and final game of the inaugural Athletic Rehabilitation Center (ARC) Madness Tournament and clinching the tournament title. Winning this tournament makes a strong statement coming out the gate for this team and suggests that the Lancers are as good a team as many of their fans believe they are.
With nine seniors, six returning lettermen and two four-year starters in Vance Wentz and Zach Schneider, the expectations are high for this Lancer team this year. And the expectations aren’t misplaced. This team has potential to do great things. Wentz and Schneider, four-year starters who led the team in scoring last year as juniors, are undoubtedly the team’s leaders on and off the court.
But Wentz and Schneider won’t have to carry the team by themselves. The two stars are flanked on all sides by quality varsity players, such as sophomore center Lucas Jones, who earned MVP honors for the tournament with three breakout performances. Jones made big plays on both sides of the court all tournament, establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with in the paint and as a shot-blocker.
What impressed me the most about Jones wasn’t his athletic prowess; it was his composure at the varsity level. As one of only two underclassmen on a team made almost entirely of seniors, Jones never seemed affected by the pressure of the moment. He played with poise and passion the whole tournament. In a telling moment, Jones became visibly upset when Vance Wentz, the undeniable star of the team and a D-1 basketball commit, failed to feed him the ball when he was well-entrenched in the post. Watching Jones yell at his senior leader and demand the ball like that impressed me more than any play he made all tournament.
That play was symbolic of an attitude that head coach Shawn Hair has urged his players to adopt this season. After a brief shootaround before Friday’s game against Bishop Kelly, Hair told his team, “I want fire.” Team manager Jackson Dalton told me that Hair has stressed the importance of this team playing with confidence (swagger, if you will) and passion. He believes this team has a chance to be great, and that that mentality is key to their success. In their first three games, East showed glimpses of this “fire,” particularly last night in a tight game against reigning 5A state champions of Oklahoma Bishop McGuiness.
The Lancers’ on court mentality was what struck me most in these first three games. Not only did they show the passion Hair wants to see from them, but every player, even Vance’s freshman brother Joey, played with unusual composure and confidence for this early in the season. This was evident in the shot selection. Across the board, players took shots that I would have thought they would be too scared to take, and oftentimes their confidence paid off. Just look at senior Connor Knabe’s acrobatic back hand scoops against St. James and Bishop Kelly. Or senior Cory Perkins’ aggressive baseline drive late in the Bishop Kelly game. Whether it was Perkins or Vance, every Lancer seemed more willing to try things offensively than players in years past have been.
Perhaps the greatest asset this team has is its depth, and that was immediately apparent this weekend. Even without senior Chris Tuttle, benched with a torn meniscus, East played at least nine deep in each game. In the second game against Bishop Kelly, the Lancers played 12 men — and all 12 scored.
The team’s depth and talent will allow Hair and his staff to throw a myriad of lineup combinations at opponents. In the first game, my colleague Kyle Winston noted the effect all the different options East could put on the court could have. He’s right. With such a deep, balanced team, Hair can pick and choose lineups with very specific desired effects in mind. Against a particularly quick team like SM South, he could play Knabe, speedy senior Connor Rellihan, and either of the senior point guards, Jackson Sublette and Connor McGannon, with both Wentz brothers at the four and the five spots, playing for speed rather than size. Or against a bigger team, Hair can pick a taller lineup with Schneider, Wentz, Tuttle and Jones all on the court at the same time. The amount of interesting lineup combinations is an invaluable asset for Hair.
The Lancers looked very good this weekend. They have a lot of potential. As coach Hair said, “This team has so many positives.” The key moving forward lies in their mentality. If they play with the “fire” Hair wants them to have, and they continue to play with poise and confidence, they could really do something special. It should be a fun season. Stay tuned, Lancers.