MADISON – Most basketball fans remember Rick Pitino's infamous monologue back in 2000 when he was coach, GM, and CEO of the then-struggling Boston Celtics. You know the one.
"Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old."
Longtime MRA coach Richard Duease, who oversees what has been the most dominate boys basketball program in the MAIS over the last decade plus, isn't ready to go that far when assessing his team this year. After all, the season hasn't even started. But, make no mistake, the big men of Patriots' past such as Justin Malone, Sean Rawlings, Ryan Goolsby, Brent Roberts, Ross Door, etc. . . aren't, as Pitino put it, walking through that door.
Same goes for last year's frontline trio of Braxton Eubanks, Zach Jones and LiLewis Davis, for that matter. While certainly not gray and old, they have indeed graduated and moved on, leaving behind a huge void down low for MRA, which enters a season without a dominant big man for the first time in recent memory. Furthermore, the Patriots lost all five starters - and top six players overall - from last year's team which won 34 games and captured a third straight Overall championship.
Those six players combined for roughly 55 points, 27 rebounds and 12 assists per game. MRA doesn't return a single player who averaged over 3.5 points per game a year ago, and you won't find anyone taller than 6-foot-3 on the Patriots' roster.
Duease, who relishes a good challenge, certainly has one on his hands this year as he looks to mold a guard-heavy, relatively inexperienced group of players into a winner and in the process keep his program atop the MAIS pecking order. If anyone can it's the ultra-competitive Duease, who last year became Mississippi's all-time winningest boys high school basketball coach.
He enters today's 1:30 p.m. season-opener against Class 5A Stone at Gulfport with 1,055 career boys wins.
"We're going to have an entirely different team than what we've had the past several years," Duease said. "It kind of reminds me of how we had to be 10-12 years ago . . . full-court pressing, hustling and playing hard on defense all the time. We don't have that big guy in the post like we've had, but I think we've got some inside guys who can be solid high school players. And we've got some really good guards. I'm really enjoying this team. I think we have a group of guys capable of having some success."
Speaking of success, MRA has won three straight, four of the last five, nine of the last 12, and 10 of the last 14 Overall titles with Duease at the helm. For that remarkable run of unparalleled success to continue this year, a bevy of mostly unproven, albeit-talented players are going to have to step up and perform at a high level under the bright lights. And the will have to do so against a collection of teams in the league licking their chops at an opportunity to catch the Patriots on a perceived down year.
"It's going to be a challenge, no doubt," Duease said. "Part of that challenge is believing we can win. There's probably going to be some games we're not supposed to win that we'll win, and there's probably going to be some games we're supposed to win that we may not. If we can play defense, block out and rebound, and find a way to guard the post, I think we can have a really good team because we hustle and we shoot it pretty good. And, I think we'll have nine, 10, 11 guys who I will be able to rotate in there. I'm looking forward to seeing how we do."
Junior combo guard D.H. Dew, MRA's top returning scorer and most experienced player, thinks the Patriots will be just fine.
"With all the success MRA has had in basketball, and with all the Overall championships MRA has won, everybody normally expects us to be good," Dew said. "It's true that we lost a lot of players and a lot of experience, so I can see where some people may view us being down this year, especially by MRA standards. But, I still think we're going to have a great team. I think we're going to surprise some people, and maybe even be right back where we were last year.
"Coach Duease has us playing really hard on the defensive end, and we've got a group of guys who are hungry and ready to prove themselves," Dew continued. "We've got good speed, we've got guys who understand the game very well, and we've got some shooters. We'll be able to get up and down the floor, get some easy baskets in transition, and make some good things happen."
Dew will be joined in the starting lineup by fellow junior Ryan Kitchens, senior Hamp Hudnall, sophomore Phillip Hughes and 8th-grader Josh Hubbard. That is subject to change in a few weeks when Duease welcomes a quintet of football players, which he hopes can provide some much-needed girth and depth to the mix. But, right now, the aforementioned five is who the legendary coach is rolling with.
Josh Thomas, a junior swingman who stepped away from basketball a year ago, has also seen considerable playing time in three scrimmages leading into today's season-opener on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. All six, along with senior guard/forward Cole Ruwe, have performed well in the Patriots' new-look, perimeter-oriented offense.
"I think when we add those five football guys with what we have we will have a solid team, a team that can compete for a championship," Duease said.
Dew, an excellent passer who can also shoot it from deep, has been slowed by injuries throughout his career. He underwent surgery July 31 to repair a torn meniscus in one of his knees. He is attempting to work his way back into form after being sidelined for nearly 10 weeks.
"DH is the most experienced guy we have coming back, in fact he's the only one we have back from last year's top seven," Duease said. "He could be very, very good. He needs to work on his defense a little bit, and we need him to be less loose with the ball than he is at times. But he's a great shooter."
Right now, there really is no frontcourt to speak of, only backcourt players. However, for the sake of staying in line with hoops vernacular, let's say Dew will be joined in the "backcourt" by his good buddy Kitchens, who possesses good court vision and excels off the dribble. The junior guard added 15 pounds of mostly muscle through a strenuous off-season workout regimen. He is more buff than ever.
"Kitchens has really worked hard in the off-season, and he's really improved," Duease said. "We are looking for big things from him."
After playing sparingly the past two years, Hudnall has taken on a much more prominent role in this his senior year. Always known as a hustle guy and solid defender who loves to draw charges, Hudnall has added a jump shot to his previously slash-happy offensive repertoire.
"Hamp may be the most improved player we have," Duease said. "His shot has gotten much better. I'd like to see him be a little more aggressive offensively, but I think he's going to have a solid year for us."
Two youngsters – Hughes and Hubbard – round out the starting five. Both are making the jump to the varsity level after starring on the junior high team a year ago. Both are skilled offensively. Both should make a mark this season.
"Hubbard may be one of the best young players we've had in a long time," Duease said. "We're expecting a really good year from him. And Phillip has a lot of potential. If he can play within himself, he's going to be really good."
Thomas, who is more of a perimeter player, is being asked to play more inside until frontcourt help arrives from football in the form of senior Samuel Shufelt and juniors Russ Sceroler and Brendan Butler.
"We are glad to have Josh back," Duease said. "It's going to take him a while to get back in the swing of things, but I think he's going to be a big part of our team."
Senior William Milam, yet another guard, could see considerable playing time once football season concludes. He will add depth along with fan favorite Ruwe, juniors Graham Field and Elijah Richards, and sophomore Conner Cullom. Philip Short, the star quarterback on the football team, is also expected to play.
The schedule, as always, is tough – beginning today with Stone, which went 24-6 a year ago and advanced to the Big House. MRA is also set to play Yazoo County and Tishomingo County out of conference to go along with an always-tough conference slate. In addition, the Patriots are slated to play in the Lafayette County Shootout and St. Thomas More's tournament in Lafayette, La.
"That's how we like it, we like playing good teams," Duease said. "That's how you get better. I think once we get everybody on board we're going to have a solid team, one that's capable of playing for a championship again."