For the first time since 2008, New Albany is wearing the mythical No. 1 jersey as the best boys basketball team in Indiana.
The Bulldogs, in the opinion of the coaches and media who vote, occupy the top spot in the polls following their season-opening victory at Bloomington South and a surprising loss by preseason favorite Southport. Want it or not, they’ve inherited the beacon of attention that comes with that lofty status.
The response of New Albany coach Jim Shannon was a shrug.
The Bulldogs (1-0) are already targeted. With sophomore Romeo Langford at the main attraction, they’re accustomed to the hype. So this week, as they prepare to defend that ranking when they host Evansville Harrison (2-0) on Saturday night, is just another moment in the swirl of the storm.
“We’ve been trying to convince our kids, because we’ve had the success we have had, we’ve tried to make them understand that each and every night we’re the Super Bowl for a lot of teams,” Shannon said. “We’re the one they want to beat. So having a target on our back is nothing new.
“Now for these kids to be No. 1, according to the polls, it makes the target bigger. It’s early, and we’re not putting a whole lot of weight on that.”
How long can New Albany hold the top spot? In ’08, those Bulldogs spent the second half of the season there, finally falling to eventual state champion Brownsburg (which featured former Butler star and current NBA standout Gordon Hayward) in the semistate final.
That team ranks among New Albany’s best ever. This one has yet to prove anything. With Langford, one of the top recruits in the class of 2018, there is certainly potential for greatness.
“The ranking (starting the preseason at No. 2) came out of the blue,” Shannon said. “I wasn’t anticipating it this early in the year .Think about it. We play four sophomores out of the eight we play. That’s incredible. We’re young.
“You don’t really know who the top teams are until you’ve played 8-10 games. Then they surface. But we really don’t know yet so we’re not paying a lot of attention to it. It just gives us more incentive to practice harder.”
New Albany survived a tough debut, clipping No. 11 Bloomington South 72-68. The Bulldogs overcome a lot of obstacles, including Langford’s premature departure with five fouls, and some defensive deficiencies. Junior guard Isaac Hibbard scored 24 points and Langford finished with 18.
“Isaac stepped up and played so well,” Shannon said. “He played like a senior. It was a definite positive, that Romeo only played 24 minutes, Josh Jefferson only played 20, and we won. They’re the two best offensive players we have. With both of them playing limited minutes, I thought the kids handled it pretty well. It was a tough atmosphere against a tough team, and yet we came out on top.”
At one point in the opener, with the foul trouble forcing emergency adjustments, New Albany had five guards on the floor. The Bulldogs lack size, and have yet to completely grasp the defensive effort Shannon demands. When they figure out that end of the court, they could look like a No. 1 team.
“All of our weaknesses can be overcome,” Shannon said. “You can’t do a lot about size because you’re not going to get bigger. But the way the Golden State Warriors are playing right now, it gives us hope. Not that we’re comparing ourselves to them, but we can fix some things.”
Justin Sokeland can be contacted at email@example.com