Coach: A.J. Bennett, 2nd season
Last season: 14-13, 7-5 in 2-AA
Departed players: Brandon Stewart, Matt Hinton, Colt Springer
Probable starters: Clay Leatherwood, Steffen Schroeder, Blade Durbin, Davis Soehn, Thomas Mackey
Key role-players: Raj Bhula, Christian Maloney, Cole Fuller
Why they can win: The Highlanders return all-district caliber players in sharpshooter Clay Leatherwood, Blade Durbin and Steffen Schroeder. Raj Bhula, elevated from junior varsity, has practiced well and should make an impact. The Highlanders don’t have a real weak-link offensively, in fact nearly every player with real varsity experience has led the team in scoring in a game before. In the second year of A.J. Bennett’s system, the Highlanders should flourish and improve on last year’s winning season.
Areas of concern: Though G-P has many good players back, the loss of pure point guard Brandon Stewart and top big-man Matt Hinton could have a negative impact on the team, especially in the early going. Rebounding will also be a concern without Hinton, who came into his own on the glass last season.
Coach Bennett says: “I’d say our strength lies in our experience. Clay and Davis played a lot of basketball last year and played very importanat roles in how we played late in the season. They’re battle-tested. Everybody’s had a year in the system so we’re more comfortable with our system and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
On Raj Bhula: “He might as well be a starter, he’s played the best of anybody (in the preseason).”
On offense: “Clay and Steffen both have the potential to put up big numbers any night. But the beauty of our team is you can’t really key on any guy, we have five or six guys that can really lead us in scoring any night.”
On rebounding: “If we’re ever going to try to win a championship, we’ve got to be more committed to rebounding. We’re trying to learn to play more physical and have five guys going to the boards. It will probably be the difference between us finishing the middle of the pack in the district.”
On playing in 3-AA: “There are no freebies in our district, but we embrace that. It makes us be battle-tested, and by the end of the season you’ve played some of the best teams in East Tennessee, and that certainly helps come tournament time. We’re trying to win the district.”
Coach: Jonathan Shultz, 6th season
Last season: 19-13, 7-5 in 2-AA (4th in district tournament)
Departed players: Andy Barnett, Curtis Jordan, Parker Ratcliff, Nick Duda
Returning varsity: Kaleb Black, Ben Vaughan, Austin McCarter (injured), Nate Marine, Trevor Jain (injured), Hunter Finchum (injured), Jake Kingery
Probable starters: Kaleb Black, Ben Vaughan, Nate Marine, Jake Kingery
Key role-players: Anthony Shuler, Ryan Beal, Skylar Gibbon, Cade Dudley, Kolby Black, Cole Fritchman
Why they can win: Coach Shultz has instituted a new system this season, based on coach David Arseneault’s run-and-guy type system at tiny Grinnell College. Arseneault’s teams have led all levels of college basketball in scoring 16 of the past 18 seasons with a high-tempo press and shoot style of play. With Shultz’s team running this system, the Tigers are sure to surprise some opponents, despite having the least varsity experience of any team in the county.
Areas of concern: Shultz’s team lost most of its scoring from last year in the departure of team leaders Barnett and Jordan. Add to that the fact that the Tigers are starting the season with three players out with ACL tears (two from football, one suffered over the summer) and the team’s already limited varsity experience is compounded further. Some of the injured players will likely return after Christmas break or during the crucial district stretch of the regular season.
Coach Shultz says: “Our season is going to be predicated on how well we shoot the ball, how well we play and on our commitment to this system and unselfish basketball. I’m asking them to sacrifice their individual play and individual statistics to give the team a chance to win.”
On injures: “I don’t want to use injuries as a crutch, because I don’t think we’re going to win or lose any more games based on the injuries we have right now. It’s just meant some younger guys will have to step up quicker.
Coach: Ken Wright, 7th season
Last season: 17-13, 9-5 in 2-AAA (won district tournament)
Departed players: Bentley Manning, Jake Moore, John Gonzalez, John Berry
Returning varsity: Devin Schmidt, Jacob Whaley, Weston Underwood, Cody Underwood, Jake Grosser, Dillon Cate, Trent Pope, Brent Delozier
Probable starters: Devin Schmidt, Jacob Whaley, Weston Underwood, Cody Underwood, Jake Grosser
Key role-players: Brent Delozier, Trent Pope, Dillon Cate, Logan McCarter, Devonte Matthews
Why they can win: The Bears improved as the season went on last year, peaking in the postseason. With a strong core back, including potential all-state player Devin Schmidt, the Smoky Bears are the odds-on favorite to win District 2-AAA. Additions of several players that had taken a year off will only help the team’s depth and athleticism, while younger players from last year have progressed, according to coach Wright.
Areas of concern: With last year’s surprise District 2-AAA championship, the Bears have earned two of the last three, meaning they should sneak up on no one this season. With the loss of several team leaders to graduation and the influx of a few new players, the Bears may have to work on their chemistry, especially before Christmas. Everyone the Bears play will look to stop Devin Schmidt, who was the MVP of the Knoxville Rocky Top League for high school players this summer. That means the Bears will have to find more scoring options. Graduated seniors Bentley Manning and Jake Moore were two of the Bears’ better outside shooters last season, and they’ll have to find someone beyond Schmidt to score from the perimeter.
Coach Wright says: “We’re going to have a good ball club. How good depends on how hard we’re going to work and the chemisty. We’ve got a couple of guys that haven’t played in a year or so. And when you miss a year you don’t get better. So they’re going to have a lot of work to do. Hopefully by Christmas we’re going to get everybody on the same page for the second half of the season, and we’ll be a pretty good basketball team.”
On Devin Schmidt: “He had an outstanding summer, and he’s got a lot of interest from colleges now, and he’s got a chance to really be a dynamic player this year. He’s really worked hard on his game, and I’m looking for big things out of him. He had a really good year last year, but I’m really looking for him to bust out this year. He played some really good competition in the AAU circuit.”
On Jacob Whaley returning from injury: “I’m really looking forward to having Jacob, he had a really good summer. When you pair (Schmidt) and Jacob together, they’re a really good combination. Both of them understand the game and they kind of feed off each other. We did a lot of good things with both of them on the court this summer.”
Coach: Brian Jessie, 3rd season
Last season: 14-15, 4-10 in 2-AAA
Departed players: Logan Jenkins, Eric White, Bobbo Chesser, Mitch Miller
Returning varsity: D.J. Griffin, John Lavin, Gunner Gibson, Peyton Lee, Matt Dupes, Jake McBrayer, Douglas Maples
Probable starters: D.J. Griffin, John Lavin, Gunner Gibson, Peyton Lee, Jake McBrayer
Key role-players: Cameron Ogle, Douglas Maples, Matt Dupes, Austin Arrington, Christian Britt, Braxton Dockery
Areas of concern: Logan Jenkins presence at the point last year, when healthy, made the Eagles a different, better, team. With him gone, it will leave huge shoes to fill in the Eagles’ starting five. Seymour has started strong each of the last two years, only to fade during the IMAC stretch. The Eagles don’t have a dynamic scorer, though Griffin can put up points in bunches thanks to his presence on the offensive glass. He’ll need to say out of foul trouble, which has been his undoing, for Seymour to be their best.
Coach Jessie says: On replacing Jenkins in the backcourt: “I think we’re a little more talented in terms of depth, and what we have returning should be better, but I’m really concerned about our point guard situation. We’ve got to be more consistent at point guard. (McBrayer and Ogle) just need experience. I think they’ll get better as the year goes on.”