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West boys hoping to erase memories of recent collapses

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Posted: Friday, January 11, 2019 11:45 am

Congratulations to the West Carteret boys basketball team for finishing its nonconference portion of the regular schedule 11-1.

Now what is it going to do?

Recent history would suggest a plummet is on the horizon, but I’m really rooting for the opposite to happen. The Patriots are due for a conference championship, which would be their first since the 1985-1986 season.

A collision of favorable circumstances has come together this winter for West to snap a 33-year skid. The Morehead City squad for years has been assigned to conferences alongside perennial top talent-producing programs from New Hanover, Pitt, Craven and Onslow counties.

Last year, for instance, the Patriots had a roster chock full of talent but shared a conference with Northside-Jacksonville, a defending 2A state champion that went 29-1 in 2017-2018, advancing to the 3A state final before losing to the No. 1-ranked team in the state, Cox Mills, 65-63.

Now, about that whole “plummet on the horizon” line from earlier. It’s not an overstatement to say West has had a problem finishing seasons in recent years. Last winter, the Patriots started out 11-0 and went 2-8 down the stretch to finish 13-8, place fifth in the 3A Coastal Conference and miss the playoffs entirely.

Granted, West lost starter DaShawn Jones to an injury for a big chunk of the conference season, but last season wasn’t a fluke either. The Patriots started the 2016-2017 season 8-1 before going 7-9 down the stretch to finish 15-10 and fourth in the Coastal.

The last time West flipped the script during the regular season – starting out slow and finishing strong – was the 2013-2014 season. It began 2-6 and went 12-6 down the stretch to finish 14-12 overall and 9-3 in league play for second place.

The Patriots came very close to capturing a title in that season. Their only blemishes were a 50-48 defeat to White Oak and a 66-59 loss to regular-season champ Havelock. They split the series with both teams as part of a five-game win streak to end the regular season. They fell to Jacksonville 77-57 in the conference tournament final before turning around and beating the Cardinals 53-49 in the first round of the state playoffs.

Since that season, the Patriots have finished no better than fourth place in league play. This year’s nonconference schedule doesn’t exactly spell out whether or not they are ready to snap that unlucky streak of poor finishes either.

According to the website MaxPreps.com, the Patriots are ranked No. 22 in the 3A classification and No. 86 in the state across all classifications. However, their strength of schedule – minus-1.7 – is lower than any of the 21 teams in front of them on the 3A list.

The same strength of schedule rankings that hurt the Patriots’ profile on paper also help them. The second-lowest strength of schedule on that list of 22 teams belongs to White Oak at 1.1. The 12-1 Vikings are another favorite to win the Coastal and ranked No. 15 in the 3A by MaxPreps.

The rest of the conference plays out favorably for West. Northside graduated the bulk of its talent in the spring and is having a down year at 6-4. Make no mistake that its roster will be still be talented, as will Havelock’s (4-2). Jacksonville is 2-4 and Swansboro 3-11.

Tonight will put into focus at least a small part of the Coastal puzzle when West visits Jacksonville and White Oak hosts Havelock. The Patriots will be on the road for their first two conference games. They will also travel to Swansboro on Friday, Jan. 18.

The Patriots will host White Oak on Tuesday, Jan. 22 in the first of two meetings with the Vikings. The two league front-runners will clash in Piney Green on Feb. 8.

West is chasing a title last won when the legendary coach whose name is etched on the gym floor was still roaming the side-court. Under Billy Widgeon, the Patriots defended their 1984-1985 state championship over Statesville with a conference title and a deep run in the postseason to finish 19-7 overall. The 1985-1986 team finished the season ranked No. 1 in the regular season North Carolina Cage Poll.

The program’s last conference championship was actually a share of the regular-season title with West Craven. The two schools split their series, but the Patriots won a coin toss to receive the top seed in the District II tournament. There, they advanced to the third round before falling to Southern Durham.

It’s no secret that West basketball coach (and athletic director) Craig McClanahan is near retirement. Make no mistake, he wants that conference championship. My hope is that everyone else in the gym during practice wants it just as bad.

McClanahan’s flex offense is an effective attack when he has the weapons to make it lethal, and he does this season. Junior J.J. Williams drives the train, but this team’s depth is what gives it the best chance to win a conference title. Eleven of the 13 players on the varsity squad hit the floor on any given night.  The team can employ a variety of rotations depending on the opponent. The roster is often regarded as the school’s most athletic in recent years, perhaps in McClanahan’s entire tenure.

Williams averages 15.6 points per game, currently ranked third in the conference. The guard also averages 2.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.7 steals per game. Another major contributor on the team is DaShawn Jones with 11.8 points and 5.7 boards per game.

Ean Jones averages 6.7 points and 5.0 rebounds, Gavin Gillikin averages 6.7 points and 1.1 steals, Kel Jones averages 5.6 points and 2.8 rebounds, and Steven Barr averages 5.6 points and 5.3 rebounds.

In addition to great basketball taking place between West and the other top conference teams, expect a bit of drama when it takes on Havelock, first on the road Friday, Jan. 25 and then at home Tuesday, Feb. 12. The Patriots will face Christian Frazier and Shakur Frazier in the matchups, seeing them for the first time since the pair transferred from West to Havelock in the spring. Christian Frazier is currently ranked second on the team with 17.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, while Shakur Frazier is averaging 12.7 points and 3.8 rebounds.

White Oak has two of the conference’s top four scorers in D.J. Davis (15.7 points per game) and Sam Venerable (13.7). Derrico Miler is a third Viking player averaging in the double figures with 11.9 points per game.

When West travels to Jacksonville tonight, the most dangerous offensive player it will face is Alijah Barber who is averaging 13.2 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. Northside’s most potent weapons are Quincy Martin with 11.2 points per game and Cameron Oliver at 10.1. Swansboro does not post team stats to its MaxPreps page.

(Send comments or questions to zack@thenewstimes.com or follow him on Twitter @zacknally)

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