In the 2016-2017 season, the Desert Vista High School was the only boys basketball program from Ahwatukee to compete in the 6A state tournament. Expect that to change this season as Duane Eason starts his first year as Mountain Pointe High’s head boys basketball coach.
While Eason and his team plot a return to the state playoffs, second-year head coach Gino Crump and the Thunder are looking to advance one step further than last season, when they were defeated in the semifinals.
Here’s how the two teams stack up.
Desert Vista stocked with veterans
The Thunder lost in semifinal play to eventual state champion Basha High in a low-scoring game with some big men. This season will see the return of three of those big men in Wesley Harris, 6-foot-6, Christian Anigwe, 6-foot-8, and Jaden Rollins, 6-foot-7.
Like last season, the Thunder has the length and athleticism to dominate most of its opponents. Harris averaged 16 points and six rebounds a game last season and is one of the major contributors that Crump will look to on a veteran-filled team that has only one sophomore.
Anigwe averaged six points and five rebounds last season as a junior but Crump expects his starting center to be a large contributor this season.
Through four wins, Aingwe has been.
“He is coming into his own, he had a 20 and 12 game against St. Mary’s and he’s just been consistent,” Crump said. “He’s been on the boards, dunking the basketball, and playing tough. He’s really having a good beginning of the season.”
With the Thunder’s height and length, many teams have already showed their intention to play a zone against Desert Vista.
But it’s something that Crump has seen before. Last year, several teams played zone against the Thunder. Crump believes that they just have to display a consistent ability to shoot the basketball.
“If we can get consistent shooters, I don’t think we can be stopped because we are going to see a lot of zone,” Crump said.
The Thunder lost two of its best shooters in Caleb Simmons and Noah Baumann to graduation, but it has added talent in addition to the returning players from last year.
One of the top prospects in the state, junior point guard Tyrek Chambers, is one of those key players who is likely to contribute to another playoff run. Crump said the 6-foot-3 guard will take the scoring burden off Harris and Anigwe.
“All of our kids can score, but he’s one of them that can get a shot with a tremendous amount of ease,” Crump said. “And that’s what he brings to the table. He can really put the ball in the basket at a high level.”
Crump also cited senior guard Aishwar Kumar and EJ Jackson as two players who could impact the team. He described Kumar as a tough and steady player who might be overlooked by opponents and called Jackson one of the best passers he has ever coached.
Crump said he wants his players to play together as one.
“Clearly, we have enough individual talent, but the question is if we can mesh that talent together to be a great team,” Crump said. “I have seen this before where you have several great players and the question is if they will play together. If they do, nobody can beat us and if they don’t we beat ourselves, that’s the way I look at it.”
So far, the Thunder have meshed well enough to start off their season undefeated against in state competition. But, this past weekend they suffered their only loss of the season so far. They took on national powerhouse Findlay Prep from Henderson, Nevada, at the Hoophall West basketball tournament.
Pride off to strong start
So far, the Pride seems to be living up to the standards that their new coach has put in place.
Through 10 games, the team is 9-1 with the only loss coming against Brophy Prep in a one-point nail biter. They have scored 50-plus points in every game and scored a season-high 84 points in the championship game of Gilbert’s “Welcome to the Jungle” tournament against Westview.
Aside from a 17-11 record in 2015-2016 under Hosea Graham, the Pride’s last winning season came in the 2012-2013 season under Brian Fleming. Eason said his biggest goal when he was first hired last spring was to build a championship program.
“Which for me meant; finding the flaws in the culture, fixing them and developing the championship mindset the program needed,” Eason said.
He could see that his team wanted to be great, but felt the players needed standards to follow and be pushed to maintain them.
Two of the team’s biggest wins – in which players stuck to Eason’s process and played up to those standards – came against Pinnacle and Westview in the Gilbert tournament.
Pinnacle was playing without star point guard Nico Mannion, and the Pride held the state playoff favorites to just 45 points and scored a whopping 81 – led by a 17 point and 12 rebound performance by junior forward Jalen Graham.
Against Westview, Mountain Pointe did the same, scoring 80-plus points and five players scored in double-digits. The depth it displayed so far this season is something that Eason believes could be big for his team.
“I feel every team has depth, most just don’t play a style that allows less skilled guys to play,” Eason said. “We want to play 10 or 11 guys every game. It makes us more effective. We believe our opponents may have the best or two best players on the floor, but we have the best 10.”
That depth also contributes to Eason’s ability to implement a full-court press, which allows his team to move at a fast pace and wear out opponentsas the game goes on. It was his first focus and came from his New Jersey roots.
“Defense is a staple in New Jersey high school basketball, so it was a no brainer for me, as far as our identity,” Eason said. “People think turnovers with presses, that’s not even on my list of importance when it comes to pressure. My focus is wearing out our opponent’s guards, forcing quick shots, disrupting their offense and forcing the other coach to play his bench sooner and longer than he wants.”
Eason said the team will rely on a core group of senior guard Amarion Cash, junior guard Khalid Price, and Graham in the front court. While those three all are averaging double-digits in scoring, Eason said he still has several players that could contribute in their own way.