East Lansing High School was the team to beat last March.
Undefeated, battle-tested, led by a four-star recruit and an outspoken, brash head coach, they looked every bit the part of a state champion. Until they weren’t.
Instead, coach Steve Finamore could only sit and watch from the bleachers as four other teams battled it out at the Breslin Center for a Class A state basketball championship.
One of the final four, Lansing Everett, had ousted Finamore and the Trojans after a stunning 54-48 upset in the regional title game.
“We would’ve won it,” Finamore said, shaking his head. “We could’ve beaten those teams.”
More than 11 months later, the disappointment of that loss still lingers. It serves as motivation.
The 2017 version of the Trojans are once again unbeaten. They still feature one of the top recruits in the country in Brandon Johns. And Finamore, well, he is still brash. The Brooklyn native doesn’t know any other way.
“I honestly think we are going to win a state championship,” he said, peering through his black-framed glasses. “We are going to do it this year.”
East Lansing’s quest begins with a Class A district matchup against Grand Ledge at 7 p.m. Monday at Don Johnson Fieldhouse.
The players love their coach’s outlook. They wouldn’t know how to take him if he said anything else.
“Having goals and dreaming is what you are supposed to do,” senior guard Xzavier Odom said. “If you don’t have goals that people laugh at, then they aren’t high enough.”
“I love that he talks like that,” senior guard Caleb Hoekstra added before the Okemos game. “I also believe we are very capable of (winning state).”
With a 20-0 regular season and a conference title behind them, it’s easy to see where the belief comes from.
The Trojans have firepower, depth and defense. The Associated Press ranks them the No. 2 team in the state in Class A. The high school sports website MaxPreps.com also ranks them second in the state and 87th in the nation. When Johns led the team to a 74-55 win over Lansing Catholic on Tuesday, there was a University of Alabama scout seated by the East Lansing bench.
This is their time to shine.
“We have the experience, maturity and poise now,” Finamore said. “We now know what to expect. It’s like a second interview. You go for a job the first time a little nervous. So, last year, we were a little nervous. This is like our second interview. Now, we are more relaxed.”
Daring to dream
In the practice gym adjacent to the Trojan’s home court, senior Brady Carlson was leading a mid-week, laid-back practice. He opened it with a swish from the top of the key. His teammates followed suit, relaxed, just like they are in games.
Junior guard Malik Jones kept practice light with his bright smile and infectious swagger. Deandre Robinson and Odom never walked off the court without words of encouragement and a slap on the hand. Westin Myles was the steady one, stroking 3’s and driving the lane.
Monty Myles, father of Westin Myles, has put five kids through the Trojan basketball program, but he has a special connection with this year’s team. He coached this entire senior class in middle school and AAU summer basketball.
“When I coached these guys they used to blow teams out. We used to talk back in sixth grade that this would be the team that makes it to the state championship.”
Finamore has praise for every player on his roster. He also says Johns, a 6-foot, 8-inch junior, is the main reason the Trojans are undefeated.
Finamore calls Johns the “best high school player” he has ever coached. He isn’t worried about giving him a big head. Johns deserves the credit, he said. After all, Johns cracked the 1,000-point career scoring mark this year. And he has another year of high school to go.
“He’s been that dominant,” Finamore said.
Johns felt a lot of the pressure last season to bring home a championship. This year, he said he is different. The team doesn’t just hope to get to Breslin, they expect it.
“I think we have a lot more drive this year,” Johns said. “I think everyone is a lot more focused this year. I think after the loss to Everett, everybody decided to buckle down. I think we are a lot more serious this year.”
Odom doesn’t mind that Johns consistently grabs the headlines. It means the team is winning.
And, most nights, Odom is in awe like the rest of the crowd.
“Brandon is one of the best guys you can ever meet,” Odom said. “Guys like that you usually see them being selfish and not passing the ball. He is our go-to player, our rock. He’s that ‘glue guy,’ something we always need.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo can be seen sitting in the stands at most every Trojans game. He isn’t there to take in a game on his off days, he is there to watch Johns. And plenty of other Division-I coaches around the country have taken notice, too.
Some recruiting websites have Johns ranked as one of the top 50 players in the country. Nearly every website has four stars next to his name, indicating that he is a can’t-miss prospect. He averages 20.1 points per game and is nearly always good for a double-double on the stat sheet.
“He’s the reason,” Finamore said, why the Trojans are ranked among the nation’s best. “He’s the best player in the state.”
Like his coach, Johns dares to dream.
East Lansing’s boys basketball team hasn’t won a state championship since 1958.
“That’s crazy to think about,” Johns said. “We have to bring it home. That would be really sweet.”
The March 23, 1958, headline on the Lansing State Journal sports page reads: ‘East Lansing’s Triumphant Trojans”
Led by Art Brandstatter, the Trojans knocked off state powerhouse River Rouge 62-51 in front of 12,291 fans at Jenison Field House.
The paper said “100 percent” of the blue-white student section banged wood blocks together causing noise that forced some to cover their ears. The “University City” had finally claimed a state crown, “wiping out all memories of those sad setbacks” in 1932 and 1945, the paper read.
“That was a great team. I am still very proud of that,” said Gus Ganakas, who coached the Trojans to that perfect 24-0 championship season. “I am so proud of what we accomplished. It’s a credit to the players, and a great group of seniors we had that year. It was very exciting.”
Ganakas, 90, went on to coach Michigan State from 1969 to 1976, and helped recruit Lansing Everett’s Magic Johnson to the East Lansing campus.
He knows a thing or two about great players, and he sees one in Johns.
“He’s a special player,” Ganakas said. “That is always a key to success: a player that is very good, and team-wise, very good. Art (Brandstatter) was an instrumental player throughout his career for us.”
Ganakas, who was known for carrying his famous towel everywhere he went and remembered for giving his players a week off of school after the title game (it was spring break), said he sees similarities between the ’58 squad and this year’s Trojan team. He also sees some great things out of Finamore.
“I am very impressed with what (Finamore) is doing there,” Ganakas said. “They play together, and I am very proud of them. I am excited for them.”
He is also very aware that a new banner could be making its way into the rafters next to his.
And he is all for it. And if it happens, he will be there in person to witness it.
“Records are made to be broken,” Ganakas laughed. “I am very fond of the school and the athletes that play there.”
During fall camp, Finamore gave his team four goals.
Win the CAAC Blue conference. Win a district title and a regional title. Win a state championship.
He doesn’t think it’s too much to ask from this squad. They accomplished goal No. 1 on Feb. 21 with an easy 83-53 road win over Lansing Eastern.
In the final stretch of games, the team has made a habit of playing down to its competition and letting teams hang around too long before finally stepping on the gas and running away late.
One of the Trojans’ strengths — their cool, calm demeanor — is also a worrisome attribute, according to Finamore.
He knows that won’t work in the postseason.
“I don’t want to say that they are in ‘cruise control,'” he said. “They are relaxed because they are always loose. But we are trying to go from good to great every day.”
It’s not easy to instill a killer instinct in a team that hasn’t lost in the regular season in more than two years.
During a 15-minute film session last week before the Okemos game, players gathered around the dark locker room to watch footage of the last time they played their biggest rival.
It was a 28-point road win for the Trojans, but there were plenty of teachable moments. Finamore doesn’t micromanage his guys. He offers tidbits, adds a new wrinkle to the playbook here and there. He treats his players like men.
And he wants them to think of themselves as the underdog, no matter what their record says.
Hoekstra, who was lost for the season with a broken right foot and is busy in rehab trying to get back for spring golf season, said his teammates have caught their coaches’ drift.
“This year we have a lot more of an edge to us, I think,” he said. “Especially with the way that it ended for us last year. I think we are a lot more determined and focused heading into the tournament.”
Myles, who is averaging more than 10 points per game, thinks this team is ready to make a deep run.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work,” the senior said. “We need to make sure we are focused every day and play as a team.”
Finamore likes to take everything to the extreme.
Daily, he pours over hours of film. He is always in the middle of a book. Not one, several. He spends hours buried in newspapers and magazines.
He is obsessed with learning.
He drinks at least seven cups of iced coffee a day, but said he is on a social media hiatus because it’s addictive.
When he is in the middle of a basketball season, his health takes a backseat. His current weight loss is the healthy kind of bad, you know, like “coach stress.”
Coaches live for it, he claims.
Most coaches will tell you that they are taking things one game at a time and that they never think ahead. Finamore leaned forward and tried to utter those words, but they were too painful to come out.
“I do think about it often,” Finamore said of winning a state championship. “Last year, while watching the games, I thought about it more and more.”
He’s already planned his team’s 1.8-mile trip to the Breslin Center this March.
“We are going to walk there,” he said with a smile. “If the weather is nice, of course.”
Contact Cody Tucker at (517) 377-1070 or email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @CodyTucker_LSJ