The boys basketball season has officially begun.
Brighton come-from-behind win over Dexter Monday night capped off the beginning of what the county hopes will be another exciting season in the area. If last season told us anything, it’s that one can expect a grind amongst the KLAA West teams, who will battle it out for division supremacy once again as it appears that there is no dominant team or favorite runaway winner.
Grand Blanc secured the West crown in 2014-15, but did so with two losses and a 13-8 overall record, by the far the lowest win percentage of all five KLAA division champions — five because two teams tied in the North.
Additionally, all but two teams — Grand Blanc and Howell — concluded the year with more losses than wins. The second-place team, Brighton, was 6-4 in the league but 9-12 overall. Pinckney, which took third, was 5-5 with an 8-13 record.
So as far as what’s to expect, the division appears up for grabs.
Let’s take a look at all the county teams.
After the 2014-15 season, the Highlanders and head coach Nick Simon were forced to recover from one huge loss — emphasis on huge — in Tyler Johnson. This year, the Highlanders must recover from an equally big one. Actually, they must recover from several.
The biggest name they must replace is Deajay Klett, last season’s Player of the Year in boys basketball. Klett was an integral part of both the state quarterfinalist team in 2014-15 and last year’s regional semifinalists. He’s now playing college ball at Oakland Community College.
Replacing Klett won’t just be about finding a way to fill in his 16 points and six rebounds per game, either. As a senior, he was the perfect piece for Simon’s system, which was about getting into transition and running the floor as often as possible. His redefined jumper allowed him to be the key piece of that offense.
His best complimentary pieces in Dillon French and Jake Wendel — along with Justin Butka and Jake Wright — are gone, too. So there is a lot of ground to make up. Fortunately, Simon succeeded in making similar renovations to his team a year ago when it faced the same uphill battle losing Johnson and a pair of gigantic forwards, leaving the team without its best player and two rebounding machines to clean up the boards.
The 2014-15 squad will be led by Nate Allen, Derek Kerner and Thomas Lassitter. Simon thinks the trio, as well as the rest of the guys, will find success again. How much success is yet to be seen, but the coach is confident entering the Dec. 12 opener.
“It’s always difficult when you have guys that have been in the program for a long time, seeing them move on,” Simon said. “But I hope we’re at the point where we’re plugging guys in every year and things are expected to go great again. Expectations are going to be high again. I’m hoping other people are expecting that of us as well.”
Had four-year variety starter Dylan Bennett played last season in districts against Howell, things might have turned out differently. Instead, the veteran guard caught a case of the flu and the team got a glimpse of what life was like without him.
The Bulldogs and head coach Mike Griest will deal with that all season this year.
Bennett is graduated now, as is Sloan Armstrong, Mike Lloyd and Collin McClelland.
“You don’t replace those guys,” Griest said. “There’s a lot of experience there. We’re not looking to replace them, we’re just putting in other pieces. It’s changing how we’re gonna play. We were pretty fortunate with our guard play last year, so we got some guys that we’re gonna fill in there. But we got more size on our team (this year), more post (players).”
Whereas last year’s team revolved around the skill of the guards, this year’s will rely on how impactful the guys beneath the hoop can be for the Bulldogs, who went 9-12 overall but 6-4 in the KLAA West to take second in the division behind Grand Blanc.
Nick Crocker, Grant Dunatchik, Mitchell Jolly, Kyle Peters and Connor Cavallaro will lead the group this year. And it’s a group of mostly upperclassmen, whose experience could help in grinding out wins in the West.
“I think it’s gonna be a close (race),” Griest said. “Grand Blanc, I assume, will be good again. Howell has been perennially tough. Hartland has a new coach, so you don’t know how that’s gonna work … It’s pretty competitive night in and night out.”
Asked how he hopes to fare in his fist year at Hartland and Kevin Blouin made no promises or predictions.
“Expectations, for me, is just to develop a winning culture and a winning atmosphere,” said the new coach, who moves up from junior varsity to take over for Dennis Butcher. “I want to develop an excitement about basketball and the program, and that goes all the way down through the youth level. Try to get everybody on the same page with our focus and direction.”
Of course, the best way to do that is winning. And winning a lot.
Whether or not Hartland will do that is yet to be seen. The Eagles finished tied for last in the West last season with Milford and are losing Luke Maggert, Spencer Hayes and Eric Mundinger-Smith. Those three players were raved about by Butcher last year, and the three won’t be easily replaced.
The good news for Hartland is that it gets back Konlan Paul, a senior forward who’s missed time the past two seasons with a knee injury but was called “a key piece” by Blouin. Paul’s return along with a familiar face at the helm of the program, Blouin hopes, will rejuvenate the program.
“I’m thrilled. It’s a cool thing. The seniors, I coached them when they were freshmen four years ago,” Blouin said. “I know them real well … and they knew what to expect from me. So it’s a good fit. I’m very, very excited to have the opportunity.”
The Gladiators just might have two of the county’s best returning players in Sam MacDowell and Clay Boak.
As a sophomore, McDowell was a near-constant threat for a double-double, helping his team to a 12-10 overall record and nearly a trip to its district final in Class B. His return to the lineup along with Boak, a third-year varsity starter referred to by his coach as a “dynamic scorer, creative player and good passer,” is a good starting point for Fowlerville coach Fred Hackett and his program.
Add in leading junior varsity scorers in football star Nick Semke, who showed his versatility as both a dual-threat quarterback and safety for the football team, and Dan Judd, and Hackett believes the team has the pieces to substitute for a handful of losses.
“I think those guys laid a great foundation for us last year in terms of the way to approach games with the right attitude and right work ethic,” said Hackett of his four graduated seniors in Connor Collins, Drew Vielbig, Kenny Ferris and Ben Judd.
“I think this group is picking up right where they left off and taking the foundation last year’s seniors left and really building off it. They have the skill and work ethic to have a really good season.”
The Pirates claimed third in the West last year with a 5-5 record an tied with Howell.
Given their enrollment numbers are far less than that of their main opposition such as Howell, Brighton and Grand Blanc — something coach Tom Reason talked about Monday night — that will suffice. Still, they’re reaching for more.
“We’re very small fish in a very big pond,” Reason said. “But we got a great group of kids. We’re hoping to surprise some people.”
If Pinckney sneaks up on some teams and perhaps even into first place, it must do so without its two leading scorers from a season ago in Andrew Kruk and Matt Badalucco, the team’s starting center and point guard, respectively.
Reason knows those are two difficult positions to find replacements, especially with the pair’s contribution, but he’s excited to see a more balanced attack this season offensively.
“Last year, we had to rely on two guys to score a lot,” he said. “This year, we don’t. We have an array of scorers so it’s going to be much more balanced and we’ll be a little more versatile, a little more diverse. It will take pressure of any one individual guy.”
Evan Fackler and Kolton Pavlicek will be at the head of that group, as will Michael Bankes.
“We’re gonna be small and we’re gonna be scrappy,” Reason said. “We’re really, really focused a lot on fundamental basketball, playing smart. We’re really harping on not turning the ball over and make sure we get our shots.
“This is a great group of kids, very fun to coach, very hard working, very attentive to detail. And that’s hard with high school boys sometimes, so I’m very excited about that.”