PADUCAH, Ky. — With a preseason frontcourt tandem of Marvin Bagley III and DeAndre Ayton — arguably the top sophomore and junior, respectively, in the nation — it didn’t matter that Hillcrest Prep’s backcourt was full of unheralded prospects.
But after Bagley’s unexpected move along with his younger brother following their father’s departure as an assistant coach, Hillcrest (Phoenix) needed to change philosophy and that led to increased roles for the guards.
While any program would want to build around the 7-foot Ayton, it’s the guards for the school in its first season against a national schedule that have bolstered the defense — its bread and butter.
“We need some more post presence, but our guards have that tenacity and defensive will power to get everything else going,” coach Kyle Weaver said. “In warmups, we look tiny, and we have that underdog look. Our fight is so big, though. We have that X-factor and that heart that I don’t think any other team in the country has. We don’t care who you are, we are coming at you. We won’t back down. We’ll be in your grill the full 32 minutes and thats what I try to push our guys to do.”
The success of the team starts with Ayton, who virtually every elite college program after his services. Still just a junior, Ayton is barely underway in the recruitment process. He said he is not making a decision until the last semester of his senior year.
Rather than recruiting or what might have been, Ayton said he is focusing on winning and trying to be the best leader he can be.
Ayton transferred from Balboa City in San Diego after Bagley had joined the Hillcrest program.
“They look up to me in tough times. I have to keep my head,” he said. “I can’t be mopey on the court or cry. I have to talk to the refs, talk to the coaches and keep it going, execute our plays, talk on defense and just be positive all the time.”
Weaver calls Ayton a fierce competitor who will outwork opposing players and do whatever it takes to win.
“I have seen him develop so much since October. He’s hands-down the No. 1 player in the country, but I have seen him develop so much offensively,” Weaver. “And defensively, a lot of teams don’t want to drive on him because when he jumps vertically it’s almost 10 feet.”
Weaver says he feels the program has “really rebounded well (from Bagley’s transfer).” Bagley was being home-schooled after he left Hillcrest and recently transferred to Sierra Canyon in California. He has not been deemed eligible to play at this point, pending a ruling by the CIF’s Southern Section.
A big part of that rebound has been doubling down on defense. Joining Ayton on the Hillcrest squad is Dontez Thomas, who is averaging around 18 points per game while guarding the opposing team’s top perimeter player most nights. Defensive-minded guards Chanel Banks and Darien Knowles are also key for Hillcrest’s stout defense.
Weaver would be the first to tell you — he wasn’t a good defensive player in college at Colorado Christian University. It wasn’t until he graduated college when he understood the importance of defense, and that’s been what he’s trying to instill in his underdog team.
On Friday at Mustang Madness in Paducah, Ky., Hillcrest used that defense to get by Quality Education, 57-55, despite a subpar offensive night .
“I truly believe we have the best defensive basketball team in the nation,” Weaver said. “(Against Quality Education), especially with size, we were missing two bigs so it showed with how bad we played offensively, but the team was carried by our defense.”
Even Ayton, who possesses a rare ability to knock down the 3-pointer as a 7-footer, struggled on Friday, but he found other ways to score by pouring in a team-high 22 points. Surprsingly, Ayton is averaging around four threes a game.
“I love entertaining. I don’t want to sit on the block all the time,” said Ayton. “Today wasn’t quite fun shooting the ball. I was getting bumped a lot, I got thrown off my game a lot, but we got the win. I stayed down low, executed and did what I had to do.”
Consistently putting three players onto the court at 6-foot-2 or smaller, along with the 6-foot-4 Banks and the lone big man in Ayton, Hillcrest isn’t a team that wows its opposition in size, but it has ridden its grit-and-grind philosophy to a 10-2 record on the year — the most recent game also coming at Mustang Madness, a 72-60 loss to an Advanced Prep International team it beat earlier in the season.
Since Hillcrest’s first loss of the season, back in November, the Bruins have bought in to Weaver’s defensive attitude.
“Our first loss it was more of us trying to find our identity as a team, but it’s been nothing but progress since December,” said Weaver. “We beat two really good teams in Lexington, played well in Las Vegas and then in Arizona. We’re making good progress.”
But a cloud still hangs over Hillcrest, as the NCAA made an October visit to Starshine Academy, where the players are housed and receive education. At the time, Hillcrest Prep athletic director Matt Allen said that the NCAA was seeking information on the academic schedule to determine whether the coursework would be approved.
Weaver said his school is doing things the way it should be done.
“A lot of heat is coming our way. Everyone wants us out of the picture,” he said. “They think we’re doing it the wrong way. We’re doing it the clean way though. There is no lies behind it.”