It’s a start no one would have believed.
With a roster full of mostly guards and an early-season schedule that had them open at home and then not return until the New Year, the Bryan Station Defenders are 10-0, the program’s best start in at least 20 years.
Not since the days of Shelvin Mack, who now plays in the NBA, has Bryan Station reeled off this many wins consecutively. Mack’s Defenders dropped the home opener to eventual state champion Mason County and a guy named Darius Miller. They then ran off 21 straight and became the No. 2 team in the state by the 2007-2008 regular season’s end.
This year’s edition has already beaten two teams in the Herald-Leader preseason top 25 in Paul Laurence Dunbar and Madison Central. They’ve already beaten four city rivals.
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And they have no plans on stopping now.
“After we beat Dunbar, that’s when I knew we (would) be special,” said senior Eric Boone, the team’s leading scorer with 19 points per game. “Then we came back and beat (Madison) Central and that’s what just shocked me. I was like, ‘Whoa. People better watch out.’
“It’s crazy right now. When we do lose, that’s going to be a real tough loss. That’s going to hurt.”
The Defenders know the losses will come, but the streak has helped a team that finished 13-13 last year see what’s possible.
“We’ve got to stay focused. We can’t get off task and be like ‘wow, we’re 10-0,’” said junior Jalen Burbage. “How ever many games (the streak becomes), we can’t think about that. We’ve got to take one game at a time. Like Coach says, our biggest opponent is ourselves.”
The difference for fourth-year coach Tommy Johnson this year has been staying healthy and a full-on commitment to defense and playing “small ball.”
“We start five guards right now. And with all five of those guards, it’s like having five coaches on the floor, for real,” Johnson said. “They understand how to play the game. They understand where the open guy is. They understand tempo.”
The Defenders have allowed 55.7 points per game this season, almost eight points better than last year’s average, while scoring 77.3 per game, a marked improvement over last year’s 61.5 pace.
“Last year, we really weren’t keyed in on defense and, now, this year, that’s all Coach ever stresses about,” senior Terrance Clayton-Murphy said. “That’s the first thing we do in practice the majority of the time. Defense makes offense. That’s all we’ve been focusing on.”
With few players on the team standing much taller than 6 feet, Johnson relies on his players’ strength and speed to counteract opponents with large post players. When a feed goes into a big man, the Defenders collapse down and try to disrupt his move.
“I feel like we’re quick enough that if you pass it back out, we can recover back out to shooters,” Johnson said.
So far, it’s worked. And it’s bolstered by the fact that any player who pulls down a rebound can start the break the other way. There’s no hesitation, no wait for a big man to post up. As Boone puts it: “The ball’s not dead at anytime in the game.”
The more up-tempo style suits the players and the coach.
“Over the years, I’ve always had to adjust to what the other team does, but right now, the way we’re playing, I’m hoping that teams adjust to the way we play,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a team of guys who can shoot the ball. We’ve got a group that can take it to the rim and finish. And if you don’t adjust to us, then that’s going to be hard to defend.”
While Bryan Station did lose a few players to redistricting, with three juniors and some underclassmen departing for Frederick Douglass, the ones who remained have seen their patience pay off.
“The real reason I stayed is because I’ve been playing here since eighth grade, and I trust the system they’ve always been coaching us and teaching us,” Clayton-Murphy said. “And I knew my brothers, Jalen, Eric Boone, (Keaton) Simpson, all of them were going to come here and weren’t going to leave, so why should I.”
Next up for the Defenders is preseason No. 24 University Heights, a perennial Sweet Sixteen contender.
Johnson admits he wouldn’t have circled 10 wins on the schedule thus far, so it doesn’t matter to him what might lie ahead.
“One of the things we always focus on every day in practice is that our biggest opponents in life, basketball, is always going to be us,” Johnson said. “The guy that’s in the mirror is always going to be your biggest opponent. That’s the biggest thing we focus on: making sure that we’re not in our own way. I think if you can continue to make sure we’re not our biggest opponent and we overcome ourselves, we can keep this going.”
Traditional Bank Holiday Classic
When: Tuesday through Saturday
Where: Lexington Catholic, Alumni and Bueter gyms