Sunday, January 25, 2015

Butler earns its way back into second place with "character exercise"

Basketball is teaching Coleman and his
teammates a valuable life lesson:
when life knocks you down, get up
and keep moving forward!
I have written and spoken critically about the GHSA's ruling that stripped Butler of two region wins.  These will be my last words on the subject because actions speak louder and better than words.  And the actions that have screamed the loudest have been those of Butler's players and coaches.  True to form, Butler's leader, coach Cervantes Boddy, had only these powerful words in response to my inquiry about the forfeits, this week's crucial wins over Josey and Washington County that have returned the Bulldogs to the second slot in region standings, and his suspension from Friday's game:  "Adversity is character exercise."  Amen.

Adversity is also the gift competitive basketball gives it participants.  Those who practice performing under pressure while facing head on the possibility of failure learn enduring life lessons.  I have been touched by the maturity of Butler's players.  Riding high with a 14-1 record leading into its January 9th showdown with Laney, Butler came up short and experienced its first setback.  What came next would have rattled less impressive young men.  The GHSA stripped Butler of four wins even though weeks later I have yet to hear a single credible account of wrongdoing (read here for more background).  One Laney game and one unfortunate ruling later, Butler went from 14-1 to 10-6.  And the Bulldogs went from second place, two games ahead of both Josey and Washington County, to fourth place, behind those same teams.

How did Butler's players respond to this unique form of adversity, its first true test of the season?  Coach Boddy may say his players exercised their characters by rattling off consecutive wins over Josey (after trailing by 15 at halftime) Tuesday and Washington County (in overtime and without their head coach present) Friday.  By maintaining composure and "exercising character," Butler has regained the second place slot in the region 3A standings almost as quickly as it was lost.  Here are my game notes from Friday's overtime thriller:

Butler 79, Washington County 70 (Overtime)

Friday's heavyweight battle between two teams aiming for region 3A's second place slot reinforced something I strongly believe:  this region is where the big boys play.  Butler's overtime win and return to second place is obviously the biggest story.  But a close second is Washington County's proven ability to be a threat to beat any team in any gym.

AJ Gray and Ti Lewis were featured after the Golden Hawks defeated Josey weeks ago.  Antonio Jackson's turn came Friday as the shooting guard made big shots to help Gray and Lewis keep Washington County within striking distance despite a hot shooting Butler squad.

Don Coleman and Ben Rhodes have been the most effective scoring duo in the area this season.  The two began Friday's game with a barrage of threes.  And the few that didn't find the bottom of the net early were rebounded and converted into points by 6'8" junior center Ricquail Smoot.

I've detailed the change in Smoot's aggressiveness and effectiveness during January, a time when Butler's competition has been fierce.  He played even better Friday than against Laney, Jenkins, and Josey, games I had said were the best I'd seen him play.  His 24 points against Washington County were scored very efficiently.  In addition to putting back Rhodes and Coleman's misses, he scored driving right and left from the high post, he frequently drew fouls and made a good portion of his free throw attempts, and he stepped out and made a three on the first play of the second half.  The other half of the story concerning Smoot concerns his defensive presence.  Many teams have effective inside scorers.  But Smoot's size gives Butler a special edge on defense.  After seeing Ti Lewis get most any opportunity he wanted in games against Josey and Laney, I was struck by Smoot's ability to give the talented junior so much trouble by holding his position and making Lewis shoot his jump hooks and turn around jump shots over his outstretched arms.

In recent weeks, I have spent much space and video editing time explaining the stellar play of Coleman, Rhodes, and Smoot.  But as I did after wins over Josey and Heritage during December, I am happy to highlight the contributions of senior guards Tyekeith McClattie and Jaylon Archie.  In the final minute of regulation in Friday's crucial contest, they saved Butler's chances.  Trailing by 3 with 38 seconds remaining, McClattie calmly buried a deep three pointer to tie the game.  Immediately afterwards, AJ Gray came off a Ti Lewis screen, attacked the rim, and appeared to have a free path for the game winner when Archie stepped in, took what had to be a painful charge (AJ is a big guy!), and gave his team the additional four minutes needed to get the crucial win.

As Butler, Washington County, and Josey, all with three losses, head into the final third of their regular season region schedules with three losses each, there is no time to look ahead.  But I will do so nonetheless.  For the one thing missing from Friday's heavyweight battle, a full and crazy crowd, will surely not be missing the next time I visit Butler.  That will be Saturday when Laney visits and for the second time in 22 days we hoops junkies will be treated to a game between our area's best teams... I'll see you in the gym!

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