Patriots paced by perimeter players

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MADISON – These days, the 3-pointer is second nature to basketball players and fans. It’s certainly a safe bet than none of the current MRA players have any recollection of the game being played without a 3-point line. Or anybody under the age of 30 for that matter.

However, basketball was indeed played a long time without a 3-point line - every shot was worth two points, regardless of distance. The NBA considered gimmicky for years. The NCAA was even slower to adopt the rule. In fact, it wasn’t universally implemented on the high school level until 1987.

Richard Duease was a relatively young coach at the time, in just his sixth season at MRA. An old-schooler at heart, he wasn’t a big fan of the new rule, either. At the time.

“I didn’t like it,” recalled Duease. “It invaded my territory. All we wanted to do back then was pound the ball inside all the time. (3-pointer) opened up the floor more, and made it more of a guard-oriented game.”

Duease, who embarks on his 39th season at MRA tonight when the Patriots host Clinton Christian in the season-opener, has since changed his tune. He’s done so largely due to the fact that he’s had a run of really good guards, and that trend continues this year. Most of those are very proficient 3-point shooters, led by sophomore sensation Josh Hubbard, who routinely drains shots from well behind the 19-foot, 9-inch arc.

“Thank the Lord for the decision-makers back then,” Duease said, with a chuckle. “It has really added to the game. We’ve had a lot of bigs in the past . . . we ran a lot of high-low stuff. We had good guards, too, they just weren’t as good as the guards I have now. This is one of the best shooting teams I’ve ever had. We’ve got a number of different players capable of knocking down perimeter shots.”

MRA shot, and made, a ton of 3-pointers last year during a 32-7 season which culminated with a loss to eventual champion Simpson Academy in Overall semifinals. The Patriots sank 11 treys alone en route to a win over Jackson Prep in the MAIS Class 5A state championship game the week prior. The 3-ball figures to play even more of a prominent role this year, especially after the departure of All-Star big man Trent Coleman, who nearly averaged a triple-double (16 points, 9 rebounds) last season.

The 6-foot-7 Coleman’s presence inside will certainly be missed. It remains to be seen how that void in the middle will be filled, and by who. That is arguably the biggest question mark surrounding this year’s team, which figures to once again be in the championship mix come late February despite having a true big man on the roster. Logic suggests it will have to be done by committee. Logic also suggests the guard-heavy Patriots will look to play at a faster, more up-tempo pace than they did a year ago.

“It should be a fun year,” said Hubbard, who averaged a team-high 18.2 points per game a year ago as a freshman. “We’ve got some very fast guards . . . some of the best guards in the MAIS . . . and that’s to our advantage, our speed. We’ll be fast up and down the court, tempo will high.”

Duease, who has the most wins in the history of Mississippi basketball and is presently the third-winningest active coach in the country, is expected to start three sophomores and two seniors tonight against Clinton Christian. All five can shoot the 3-ball, including smallish 5-man Silas Smith, who sank five consecutive 3’s during a recent scrimmage.

The same goes for five of the remaining seven players who will dress out tonight. That number elevates when the basketball players who play football also join the team in a few weeks.

“We can knock down threes 1 through 5 if we need to,” Smith said. “That should help us spread the floor and take advantage of our speed. Our starting five is really fast.”

That starts with Hubbard, a 5-11 dynamo capable of lighting up a scoreboard in a hurry. Just ask Gulfport High. The combo guard, who earned MAIS Class 5A Player of the Year honors a year ago as a freshman, poured in a school-record 46 points in a home win over the tradition-rich Admirals last November. Highly-regarded as one of the top players in the state regardless of class, Hubbard has already scored 1,246 points in his high school career, and he’s not even old enough to drive yet.

He holds in-state offers from Jackson State, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss. Texas has also shown interest, among others. He’s made 146 career triples, 93 coming last season.

“Josh’s game has improved 100 percent from last year,” Duease said. “His strength, his speed, his willingness to fight hard on defense now has made all the difference in the world from an individual standpoint as well as a team standpoint.”

Hubbard will be joined in the backcourt by Phillip Hughes, who returns for his senior season after garnering All-Conference laurels a year ago as a junior. A savvy playmaker on both ends, the combo guard possesses a bevy of skills, developed from spending countless hours in the gym. He holds an offer from Delta State, and has drawn interest from several other programs.

Hughes, who is 200 points shy of joining the 1,000-point club, matched a career-high with 26 points in an early season win over Pascagoula. He had 19 in the win over Jackson Prep in the 5A title game.

“Phillip is so intense on offense and defense,” Duease said. “He never lets up. He’s relentless. That’s what we have to have from him every game.”

Sophomore Ryan Russell draws the nod at point guard. A heady player with an all-around skill set, he helped lead the junior high team to an undefeated season (23-0) and conference tournament championship a year ago. He made some early season starts on the varsity team a year ago as a freshman prior to the return of the football players.

“Ryan is a basketball player,” Duease said. “He understands the game, and he plays hard. He’s my type of player.”

Smith is a returning starter along with Hubbard and Hughes. He was thrown into the fire a year ago as a junior in his first year at MRA. With a year of experience under his belt, Smith has made big strides in this his second year. While undersized for a post player, he runs the floor extremely well and plays with a high motor.

“Silas can run all day long,” Duease said. “He’s really improved from this year to last year. He’s been one of the bright spots on our team. We’re counting on him heavily.”

Sophomore Harrison Alexander rounds out the starting five. At 6-5, he adds some much-needed length inside and on the perimeter. The Germantown transfer has a sweet shooting stroke from the outside combined with the ability to score inside, as well.

“Harrison is the most improved player on our team from the time we got him until now,” Duease said. “I think when it’s all said and done I think there will be a lot of people talking about Harrison.”

Juniors Tylor Latham, Jake Veazey and Street Toler are expected to get considerable minutes at the guard spots. Latham is perhaps the Patriots’ best on-ball defender, and Veazey and Toler are both excellent 3-point shooters. Sophomores Sam Hailey, Henry Hollis, J.J. Latham and Jeff Polk add depth to the backcourt.

Latham is expected to make a strong push to move into the starting lineup at the point guard position. Likewise, Davis Dalton, a junior, should figure prominently in the frontcourt once football is over. Those two, along with sophomores Pax Hughes and Rivers Godwin are among the football players who will be joining the basketball team in about three weeks.

“They are going to give us a little more height and certainly a lot more depth,” Duease said. “Right now, for example if Silas or Harrison goes down, we don’t have a lot of depth there. But that changes when we get those guys back.”

Other returnees include: Senior forward Connor Cullom and junior forward Will Gallaspy. Cullom is a good spot-up shooter, while Gallaspy has a long wingspan. Sophomore Canaan Yates moves up to the varsity team this year, while junior Holder Jones is a newcomer.

“This group is one of those groups that just loves the game of basketball,” Duease said. “They love to practice and they love to play. That’s one thing that has been so enjoyable with this group so far. Now, whether than translates into wins or not I don’t know. We’ll find out starting (Tuesday) night. If we play like we’re capable of playing, we’re going to win a lot of games.”

MRA defeated MHSAA power Callaway in a scrimmage last week, which in itself illustrates Duease has a really good basketball team yet again this year. The Patriots won a sixth straight State championship a year ago, but fell short of their ultimate goal of winning Overall. MRA had won three straight, four of five and 10 of the last 14 prior until its recent two-year drought.

“Our expectations are high this year,” Hubbard said. “We haven’t won Overall in a couple of years, so that’s something we’re looking to change. We’ve got something to prove this year.”


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