November 5, 2013 10:51:43 PM
SCOOBA - One word can simply describe the East Mississippi Community College basketball program.
The Lions begin the season ranked 11th nationally by the National Junior College Athletic Association. For EMCC to back its lofty national ranking, the team will do it the only way they know how -- by playing a tenacious, in-your-face style of defense. It is the only way that seventh-year coach Mark White knows how to teach the game.
EMCC tips off the season with a Thursday night contest at Meridian Community College. Game time is 7:30 p.m. at Graham Gymnasium in Meridian.
"It has been really exciting playing with so many great players," said EMCC freshman guard Jason Tate, a former New Hope High School standout. "I have learned so much in only the first couple of months. One thing I learned is the importance of defense and I learned that on the first day."
In his first six seasons at EMCC, White has guided the program to unparalleled heights. Twenty-four teams play each season in the NJCAA national championship tournament. Based on four straight Region XXIII championships, EMCC has advanced to the national championship tournament in each of those seasons.
"We are on a nice little run here," White said. "The thing is the guys have a different energy when the season is the on line. When they know it is the final game and it is a lose and go home situation, they go to a different level. We have been truly blessed to play some really great games when it mattered the most."
EMCC is still working on success at the national event. However, there is no question the road to get to that tournament has been paved defensively.
"Our practices are incredible intense," said EMCC sophomore guard Jacolby Mobley said. "It is all about being in shape. We have to be in incredible shape to play the amount of defense that we are do. If you aren't conditioned and ready to go, you are going to have a struggle on the court, because we are going to guard you hard from the tip to the final horn."
While most Mississippi Association of Community and Junior College basketball games resemble the National Basketball Association with scores in the 80s and 90s, one will not need that much scorebook ink when EMCC is on the floor.
"Last season, we won three games in the region tournament," White said. "We allowed 58 points, 60 points and then 62 points in the championship. The thing is you are now going to scare a team when you are a great offensive team. However, when the other teams knows you are going to be guarding them when you get off the bus, it can scare you a little bit. Defense and rebounding that is what we worry about around here. We usually find enough of the rest to have success."
EMCC will have a huge advantage this season. The Lions actually have 10 sophomores on a 16-man roster. The Lions also have three newcomers, who have been in the program since January. Typically, two-year programs are undergoing major personnel changes on an annual basis.
"On paper, this is the most talented team we have had since I have been here," White said. "The thing that excites me the most is that in 12 or 13 years of coaching, this is the most experienced team I have ever seen.
"This team has not had the normal feel to it because of the experience. We have practiced differently. We have coached differently. The experience allows you to do different things."
After being a part of several highly-successful teams at Starkville High School, Mobley sees the similarities. As a freshman, Mobley averaged 13.6 points per game for an EMCC squad, which finished 20-8.
"The chemistry is on this team is real good," Mobley said. "Last season, we had a couple of people who could score the ball. This season, we have some more threats on the offensive end. It might be one person who leads us one night and another who leads us the next night. Coach (Greg) Carter (at Starkville) prepared me to play on this level. When I cam here, I had an offensive mind-set. Now it has just been about learning the finer points of defense."
White said chemistry is paramount in the game of basketball. Being able to bring in the right personalities is even more important when players are only there for two years at a time.
"In baseball, every player gets an at-bat," White said. "In basketball, you have one ball and it is being shared by five people. Chemistry is the most important aspect of a team. When we play other teams, coaches always compliment on our chemistry and our selfless nature. Chemistry is something we look for right away. Will this person fit in to what we are trying to do?"
White's coaching philosophy includes making sure each player has their role defined, understands their roles, accepts their role and plays their role.
"We meet with the kids individually and help define their roles," White said. "Everyone can't be a star on a team but they can be a star in their role."
No matter which role a player is placed in. The duties will include defense. White said the experience on the roster has actually allowed he and assistant coaches Shelby Lindley and Drew Bernd to spend even more time teaching the aspect of the game he loves most.
"We have worked real hard during the (early practices) in going to more of a full-court defensive team," White said. "There is only so much you can teach a new team before a season starts. However, with this many returning players, this is a great chance to expand what we do defensively. Our quickness, athleticism and depth allows us to play with type of full-court defensive pressure I want to play with."
To be able to execute 40 minutes of all-out defensive chaos, depth is essential. White is expected to play as many as 10 players a large amount of minutes in Thursday's opener. From there, a starting lineup will evolve. He hopes to have a rotation of eight players when MACJC North Division play begins in earnest in January.
"Defense is where it starts if you want to play here," Tate said. "The thing about playing (at EMCC) is that they are not going to bring you in if you can't play on this level. A lot of players have to play because of our style of play. So you come out every day and work hard on your game. I am learning fast. My job is to learn where the shooters want the ball and how they want the ball. Personally, I am working on taking better shots and becoming the complete defensive player the coaches want."
Of the team's five leading scorers from last season, Mobley is the only returnee. The offensive makeup of the team should get a huge lift from the arrival of sophomore forward Devonta Pollard from Kemper County High School. The state's player of the year in 2012, Pollard left the University of Alabama basketball team in June after being arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping. Pollard averaged 3.9 points and 3.1 rebounds per game for the Crimson Tide. His legal issue is still unresolved.
"When we bring a player in, we have to feel like it will be good fit," White said. "Our expectations are the same for everyone and they are quite simple. You do what you are suppose to be doing when you are supposed to be doing it. We have to follow the same expectations in all of our lives."
And for EMCC, the expectations are quite high.
"This has a chance to be a special team," Mobley said. "We have all the things that we need to be really good. There is an expectation around here. It involves defense and it involves winning championships. We look forward to both."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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