Rodney Smith paused for a moment, searching for the proper word. Was it anger that his team felt that late February evening? Disappointment? Sadness?
Then the word crystallized. “Disgust,” Smith said. ““I think we had a lot of guys who were really disgusted and upset with themselves over how they played. That carried over to the offseason. I think it was the best offseason we’ve had since I’ve been head coach.”
Smith’s University Trojan basketball team won 25 games in the 2015-16 and the program’s fourth district championship in the past five years. But the area-round playoff hump again blocked the Trojans’ path, like some sort of Himalayan peak that one would need a team of Sherpas to scale.
“I know the kids are unhappy about not getting past the second round,” Smith said. “It’s been our nemesis the past couple of years. It’s on our minds, but I’m just trying to keep the guys’ heads on straight, help them understand there’s nothing more important than the next game.”
University owns all the firepower necessary to blow right through that second-round barrier and make a run at a regional or possibly even a state tournament berth. The Trojans’ roster features 13 seniors, several of whom have played on varsity three or four years.
The Trojans know they can play, they know they have the talent to win. More importantly, each player seems to recognize his specific role in University’s cast of characters.
“That’s something that’s hard for a coach to do, is to get guys to understand their roles,” Smith said. “Don’t get me wrong, there are times in the season when guys will try to do something he really isn’t equipped to do. But for the most part, with all the guys on this team coming back from last year, everybody knows what is expected of them.”
The lead dog role is reserved for senior guard Umoja Gibson, a burgeoning backcourt star with a game slicker than Vaseline-covered ice skates. The six-foot Gibson averaged 20.3 points last year, and dropped in 32 points and 10 assists in the third-ranked Trojans’ season-opening 104-33 win over Reicher last Friday.
“He’s still improving, but Umoja is just a very good high school basketball player,” Smith said. “What he brings to the table is a coach on the floor, he’s a guy that helps offensively and defensively. More than that, he’s a guy who can get the other four guys on the floor to play at a high level. … He’s a thrill to coach and a thrill to watch. If you haven’t come to watch him, you should.”
The nice thing for Gibson, he doesn’t have to carry an oversized load. Senior forward Antoine Hailey (13.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg) is a four-year varsity letterman most known for his punctuating breakaway slams, though Smith said his most significant asset is rebounding. Corey Montgomery and Tim Wilkinson are the team’s air bags, cushioning the impact Gibson has to make, as veteran guards who are both capable of breaking down the defense off the dribble or shooting from the perimeter.
The Trojans also can plant a few trees in the paint, thanks to seniors like 6-foot-4 Alayiss Montgomery and 6-foot-7 Jibrael Washington.
The group spent virtually the entire summer together, lifting weights, working on conditioning and “playing as much basketball as they possibly could,” Smith said.
Smith’s rival coaches certainly think highly of University’s 2016-17 prospects. TexasHoops.com installed the Trojans as the No. 3 team in the state in the Class 5A preseason poll, while the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches currently has University at No. 13 in the state.
Such respect is nice, Smith said, but ultimately meaningless.
“I told the guys, we appreciate the coaches for giving us the opportunity to be ranked, but it doesn’t mean anything,” Smith said. “It doesn’t mean anything if night in and night out we don’t go out and handle our business. So we try our best not to talk about it.”
CENTEX PLAYERS TO WATCH
|P||Bubba Furlong, Sr||13.0||12.0||Midway|
|P||Shemar High, Sr||13.1||11.1||Mexia|
|P||Trevoin Shaw, Sr||14.5||11.1||Hillsboro|
|G||Umoja Gibson, Sr||20.4||3.8||University|
|G||Mylan Shed, Sr||14.7||6.0||Teague|
|G||Trajan Snell, Jr||14.0||4.4||Connally|
|G||Sidney Hadden, Jr||13.0||4.0||Connally|
|G||Kobe Hailey, Sr||18.3||7.0||Frost|
|G||Sabrien Jones, Sr||15.8||4.8||Groesbeck|
|G||Amani Gibson, Sr||14.1||2.4||La Vega|
|F||Antoine Hailey, Sr||13.8||6.7||University|
|F||Garrett Goolsby, Sr||11.8||3.5||Lorena|