MADISON – This time a year ago, there were more questions than answers in regards to MRA's boys basketball team.
Fast-forward a year later, and the script has been flipped as there are more answers than questions.
"We're more experienced than we were a year ago, no doubt," said legendary head coach Richard Duease, who is entering his 38th season at MRA. "Not only that, all the guys we have coming back have improved so much from last year to this year because of how hard they've worked in the off-season. People are going to be amazed at how much they've improved."
Duease, the winningest coach in Mississippi high school boys' basketball history, entered last season minus all five starters and six of his top seven players from the previous year's team. The cupboard was by no means bare. However, the departures left behind a roster dotted with relatively young and inexperienced players, who collectively struggled to find their way as a team until eventually figuring things out late in the season.
That shouldn't be the case this season, as Duease returns three full-time starters in Josh Hubbard, D.H. Dew and Phillip Hughes in the backcourt along with Russ Sceroler and Brendan Butler, who saw significant playing time a year ago in the frontcourt as the season progressed. Throw in the addition of Ridgeland transfer Trent Coleman, and MRA has the makings of a team capable of bagging some hardware at season's end..
"I think it's going to be a really exciting season," Dew said. "We have a lot of players with experience, and we know what Coach Duease expects from us now. We will get up and down the floor a lot, so I think this will be a fun team to be a part of and a fun team to watch play."
MRA didn't have a lot of fun last year, at least not in the first two-thirds of the season. The tradition-rich Patriots scuffled through much of the regular season - they were 8-7 in late December and 14-12 in early February – before righting the ship in time for the postseason. After going 18-14 in the regular season with a very uncharacteristic 5-5 conference record, Duease's team made an unforeseen three-game run in capturing the AAAA-Division I State championship with consecutive wins over Parklane, top-seeded PCS and Jackson Academy inside the friendly confines of the Du Dome.
The fact that MRA won the state championship wasn't at all surprising. After all, it was the Patriots' 30th state title under Duease, who has averaged 28 wins over the last 37 seasons and has guided his program to 12 Overall championships. The fact that MRA won it last year, with the way the season unfolded, was a surprise, however.
Although MRA (22-15) was eliminated by Hillcrest in the Overall quarterfinals the following week – denying it a fourth straight Overall title and 13th overall - the Patriots' postseason about face should provide plenty of momentum heading into the 2019-'20 campaign, which tips off later today at home vs. Bowling Green around 4 o'clock.
"I think it gave our guys a lot of confidence to come from the middle of the pack all the way to winning the state tournament at the end," Duease said. "And we had a great summer . . . we went 26-1 against some good competition. So I'm looking forward to this season. We have high expectations, as always."
While team chemistry was an issue at times a year ago, Duease doesn't see that being a problem this year.
"I think when you look back at last year, it took us a long time to realize we had more than just one or two scorers," Duease said. "But they finally figured it out. It's like I always tell them, if they don't care about who scores, if they only care about the team winning and making their teammates better, then you have a great chance of winning."
MRA will likely go as far as its talent-laden backcourt takes it. The trio of Dew, Hubbard, and Hughes combined for nearly 40 points per game a year ago while also collectively draining 164 3-pointers. Together, they form one of, if not the best and most entertaining backcourts in the league.
Dew, a senior, was second on the team in scoring at 13.4 points per game and led the Patriots in rebounds (3.8), assists (4.3) and steals (2.4) per game as a junior. The oft-injured sharpshooter, who made a team-high 78 3-pointers a year ago, is healthy and primed for a big senior season at the point guard position.
Dew, a second-team All-Conference selection, ran hot and cold at times last season. However, he's capable of heating up in a hurry from 3-point range as evidenced by his career-high 35-point performance in an overtime win at Copiah – a game in which he drained seven treys. He scored 30 against Jackson Victors, including 19 in the fourth quarter alone. He sank five 3-pointers in the second quarter alone in a win over Oak Forest, and against Parklane 23 of his 27 came in the second half.
"D.H. is a solid point guard for us," Duease said. "He's a guy who has had some injuries, and those have sidetracked him some. We certainly hope he can stay healthy this year because we are counting on him to run the show for us. He's probably one of the best passers that I've ever had. When he makes up his mind that he's going to score some, but at the same time make everybody on the floor better, we're hard to beat."
Hubbard, a first-team All-Conference selection, returns after leading the team in scoring at 15.3 points per game as an 8th-grader. Yes, you read that right. An 8th-grader. In his first year playing varsity - as a 13-year old, no less (he didn't turn 14 until late in the season) – Hubbard didn't take long in making a name for himself. He scored 18 points in a season-opening loss at Stone, one of 30 double-digit performances.
A dynamic scorer who gets his points in a variety of ways, the 5-foot-11 Hubbard is arguably the top player in the state in his class. This summer at the prestigious MSHTV showcase event in Indianapolis, where he competed against the top 100 players in the nation in his age group, Hubbard ranked inside the top 30 at week's end. Those who have witnessed him play, shouldn't be surprised. He had a season-high of 26 points on two occasions, once against eventual Overall champion Heritage and the other coming against regular season champion PCS. The scary part?
"I think he's twice the player he was last year," Duease said. "He's so much bigger and stronger. He's shooting the ball very well. He's got to improve his defense, but I think that's going to come with age and maturity. I'm looking for great things from him, not only this year but in the future."
Dew and Hubbard are joined in the backcourt by Hughes, a 6-foot-1 junior who possesses saucy ball-handling skills and exceptional court vision. The son of former Mississippi State standout Whit Hughes, Phillip averaged 9.1 points per game a year ago as a sophomore. He had 18 double-figure games, including a season-high 19 points against Hartfield. He scored 17 points on four different occasions, while splitting time between point guard and the wing position.
Hughes will again likely see some playing time at point guard, but he is expected to play more off the ball this season with Dew healthy.
"Phillip is a basketball nut . . . he's probably our most improved player from last year to this year," Duease said. "His outside shot has gotten so much better. We can play him on a tough guard, and he's going to give him everything he has. The one thing about Phillip is he's going to play hard, and he's not going to quit."
MRA was a guard-laden team a year ago, with not much in the way of an inside presence until the emergence of Sceroler and Butler late in the season. The Patriots were, in essence, what some refer to as a donut team, meaning they had a hole in the middle. That hole is expected to be filled by the 6-foot-7 Coleman, who averaged 13 points and seven rebounds a year ago as a junior at Ridgeland. A big man who is just as adept at stepping out and making 3-pointers as he is scoring with his back to the basket, Coleman was selected to the North-South junior Mississippi All-Star game prior to his arrival at MRA this summer.
"He's probably one of the best transfers we've had, not only as a player but as a person," Duease said. "He's such a quality young man. He's been a great joy to get to know and to coach. We're certainly glad he's here. I'm expecting a big year out of him."
Silas Smith, another newcomer, is expected to be the other frontcourt starter. Really more of a swingman, the 6-3 junior who moved in from Florida, has been pressed into duty at the four spot until the arrival of Sceroler and Butler once football season concludes. Willie Latham, who also plays football, will help bolster the frontcourt, too, giving the Patriots more size and girth inside than a year ago.
"Silas is a hustler," Duease said. "He's got a lot to learn, and he's got to get stronger. But one thing about Silas is he's going to give it everything he has. You look at all of those guys, they provide a toughness we're going to need against the better teams we play."
Conner Cullom, a junior guard/forward, and fan favorite Eli Richards, a senior guard, also return from last year. Duease also welcomes the addition of a large sophomore class that includes guards Jake Veazey, Street Toler and swingmen Davis Dalton, Will Gallaspy and George Dew.
Tyler Latham, Willie's younger brother, is also expected to see significant minutes in the backcourt once he recovers from a knee injury sustained during a football game in early September.
"We're anxious to get Tyler back . . . he's such a good defensive player," Duease said. "He's going to be a big addition when he comes back. And we've got some other good players, too. Conner Cullom is working hard trying to get some playing time. And we've got a really good sophomore class moving up. I think those guys have a shot to contribute."
Duease will likely need contributions from a lot of people based on this year's schedule, which includes the likes of Gulfport, Pascagoula, Grenada, Lafayette Co., North Pike and defending Louisiana Class 4A state champion St. Thomas More to go along with the always tough conference slate.
"(Schedule) is tough, but that's the way I like it . . . that's the way it always is," Duease said. "You don't get any better unless you play good competition."
The 67-year old Duease has 1,669 career wins. He enters this season only 29 wins shy of becoming Mississippi's all-time winningest coach (boys and girls combined). Good luck getting him to talk about the record, though.
"Right now all I'm concerned with is finding a way to beat Bowling Green," quipped Duease.