Friday, December 22, 2006

SPORTS >> Classic tourney has new features

Leader sports editor

The 15th Annual Red Devil Classic basketball tournament begins Wednesday Dec. 27, and this year it has a distinctly different flavor. Gone are all those teams that typically made up the East and Central conferences in the old 5A classification. This year’s boys division will consist of only two local area teams, Jacksonville and North Pulaski.

Joining those two will be Little Rock McCellan, Hughes, and three out-of-state teams, including Overton High in Memphis, Olive Branch, Miss., and Woodham, Fla. Coach of the Red Devils, Vic Joyner knows very little about the out-of-state teams, or about his first-round opponent, Hughes. That doesn’t bother him much, he’s concerned with getting his team prepared for play in the highly competitive 6A-East in January.
“All I know is, according to some scouting reports I’ve got, they’re all supposed to be really good,” Joyner said of the teams from Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida. I haven’t seen any of them myself, but we’re worried about Jacksonville right now.”
The Red Devils currently sit on a 5-4 record, but the mediocre record is not what Joyner is concerned with. He is looking at honing his rotation in order to be able to put the best players on the floor when conference play arrives.

“We’ve been going four or five minutes at a time with completely different rotations, and I’ve been trying to narrow that down,” Joyner said. “It may have hurt us in games early on, but I’ve got so many young players. I had to find out which ones are going to be able to help us when it counts. Right now there’s still a lot of them that are making too many mistakes. It’s (the tournament) pretty much the last hoorah. They know it. We’ve said a lot in practice. We’ve slowed down, went back to some fundamental things in practice. We had a little time this week to back up and catch some of those guys up, and they know that if they don’t work those things out in this tournament, we’re going to have to cut the rotation back. I’ll take it back to seven or eight even, whatever we have to do to give us the best chance to win is what I’ll do.”

The overall team play is not where Joyner wants it, but he sees evidence of improvement. He has seen glimpses of his team playing like he expects, but it’s not been consistent. “They still kind of were out of sorts. Still not crisp in the total aspect of the game. When you look at everything that goes on over the course of the game, execution was a little bit better. The overall thinking during the game, the concept of it is a little bit better. Doing things in practice that are a little different and I think will help them recognize the mistakes.”

Expect to see similar, wholesale rotations in the tournament, but that’s not just because Joyner is making his final assessment for playing time. He’s going to be putting players through some different schemes that so far have remained in practice.
“So far we’ve just played mainly man because that’s our base defense, but this team can do a lot of things,” Joyner said. “After this, we’ll find out who is going to play, and just what it is we do well. You still might see 12 or 13 guys played at the end of the game, but it won’t be like it has been. We’re hoping to be able to give guys two, three minutes of rest, but as far as playing a lot, that will change if people don’t get some things worked out.”

North Pulaski coach Raymond Cooper didn’t even know who his team’s first-round opponent is, and didn’t care. The week prior to the Red Devil Classic has been a bad one for the Falcons in the personnel department. The smallish team with only two true post players just got smaller and now has no post player at all. Sophomore center Carlos Donley, and sophomore forward Brandon Hudson are out. Donley is out indefinitely with knee problems. Hudson will transfer to Oak Grove at semester and is gone for the year.

“It’s been a tough week,” Cooper said. “It changes what we do. Whereas before we were going to be a running team that could slow it down on you if we had to, or if it was just to our advantage. Now, we’re just going to have to be a team that pushes and pushes and pushes, and that takes 100 percent commitment.”

The best case scenario for Donley is ligament damage, which would put him out four to six weeks. The worst case scenario is a torn ACL, which means a year of rehab. Recent practices have consisted of rigorous work on pressure defense. Cooper has been pleased with the effort his players are giving in trying to change strides in mid-stream, but the execution is lacking so far.

“We’re working on it, but right now in practice we’re not adjusting,” Cooper said. “To play that way you have got to have 100 percent commitment. That’s what I’m trying to get them to understand. It’s not just chaos. You have to be in the right place. The physical effort is there, but we’re not in the right place, we’re struggling to get there. Lots of people think the slowdown team is more structured, but to play like this takes more structure because one breakdown means giving up a layup. It may look chaotic, but it’s anything but that.”

The recent loss of an inside presence also means Cooper won’t necessarily be coaching to win a lot of games in the Red Devil Classic. He knows that the games that start in January are much more important. “Our focus changed this week that’s for sure,” Cooper said. “We would love to win the tournament and we’re going to play to win, but mainly we’re going to focus on the team and preparing for conference.”

Cooper isn’t sure any longer who all of his key personnel is going to be, nor does he know for certain how the team will ultimately handle the loss of two teammates and the new, more physically taxing scheme. There are a few things that he does know.
“We’re now probably one of the smallest teams in the country,” Cooper said. “We’re going to have to be tougher, and we’re going to have to smarter. One thing I’m sure of, the Falcons are going to fight.”