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SoCalHoops High School News

High School Team Preview:
Long Beach Poly--(Oct. 28, 2000)

polylg.gif (10114 bytes)There's probably no better way that we can think of than to start off the first of what we hope will be many high school team previews and profiles throughout the the 2000-2001 season than by profiling the defending Division I-AA Southern Section CIF Champion Long Beach Poly Jackrabbits.

We're not going to go into much depth again about Long Beach Poly's head coach Ron Palmer, except to say that if you really want to read his bio here on SoCalHoops, you can find it in our earlier previews from the '99-'00 season, the '98-'99 season , and from the countless articles we've written about Poly and its players over the last four years.  We will say that Ron has been at Poly since 1973-74 (with a five-year "hiatus" during which he coached Long Beach State from 85-89, eventually returning to take the Jackrabbits' head job again).  He's seen a lot of good players come and go, and he thinks this year's team could be one of the best he's coached in a while.  And he's not just saying that either, he really means it.  Who's on the roster?  Take a look:

Mike Washington   5'-11" Jr. G
Mike Pagan   5'-6" Fr. PG
Jamel Gay   6'-1" Jr. PG
Isaiah Freeman   5'-10" So. PG
Carlos Rivers   5'-11" Jr. PG
Pat Phillips   6'-2" Sr. G/F
Jonathan Harper   6'-6" Sr. SG/SF
Donald Williams   6'-5" Sr. F
Reggie Butler   6'-7' Jr. F
Mike Roche   6'-7" Jr. F
Marcedes Lewis   6'-8" Jr. PF
Markee White   6'-8" Sr. G/F
DeAndre Williams   6'-4" Sr. G/F
Ryan Love   6'-7" Jr. F
Manual Wright   6'-8" Jr. F

One look at the lineup will tell you that this is a BIG team, one of the biggest that Poly has had in a while. "It's probably the biggest lineup that I've had since 1984, and it's probably even going to get bigger and scarier next year because kids like Reggie (Butler) and Marcedes are supposed to get even bigger," coach Palmer told us.  "Reggie's doctors think he'll get up to around 6'-9" or 6'-10", and Manual Wright, well, you don't even want to think about how big he will get.  Manual is at 250lbs right now and he could be a monster, just a huge rebounding presence" said Palmer.

And as we've written previously, Palmer is known in the coaching business more as a "point guard's coach" than anything else, and has been known to bring out the best in his ball-handlers and floor generals, and his strongest suit is that he recognizes and effectively brings out the best in his guards.   Just ask Wesley Stokes who is now at Missouri and will likely start for the Tigers as a freshman. He'll tell you that Ron is a patient, kind teacher, always willing to talk basketball and share his knowledge of the game with anyone willing to show a genuine interest to learn. 

And this year at the guard spots (both the one and two positions), Palmer has a lot of returning and new talent, starting off with mostly younger guards who will have a few more years to develop under Palmer's tutelage.  Guys like Carlos Rivers, Isaiah Freeman, Jamel Gay (a transfer from Dominguez, where his brother Sherman, who is now at LMU as a freshman  played on last year's national championship team), Mike Washington, Pat Phillips, and Mike Pagan, an exciting freshman prospect for the Jackrabbits.  

Right now Palmer is looking mostly to Rivers as the starting point, and he's a solid passer who has the ability to score in bunches, but who is more of a playmaker and passer for the Jackrabbits, at least these past two years playing in the shadows of Stokes and AJ Diggs (who is now on the Cal Bear team as a "guaranteed" walk-on). Rivers is rated by many, including SoCalHoops as one of the top point guards in his class, and over the next two seasons, he has the ability to develop into one of the more talented and highly recruited prospects in the class of 2002.  Isaiah Freeman will also see considerable time this year, and we got to see him a lot during the summer at the Pump camps and the Best of Summer Tournament, and we can also say we think he'll be one of the best this year.  Mike Washington may or may not get a lot of time, but usually Palmer has three guards on the floor at all times, but with all the size they'll have during the heart of the season (remember, a lot of the taller guys are football players for the Jackrabbits, so they won't be returning until perhaps as late as late December), but he's a very good ball handler who can also shoot.  And Palmer is also very excited about the prospect of working with young Mike Pagan.  "He could be one of the best young guards I've had a chance to work with, and I've worked with many of the best," said Ron.

At the two guard spot, we'd look for Jamel Gay, an excellent athlete with a lot of potential who can slash to the basket, but who will also need to do some major work on his shot from what we saw late in the summer (and we're speaking of shot mechanics and repetitions, not athletic ability).  Shooting is not necessarily just a natural thing to a lot of guys, and it's a learned skill, so Jamel has some work to do. 

Pat Phillips and Jono Harper will also fill in at the two (actually Jon also has the ability to play the three as well, even if he does need to put on some major muscle). And speaking of Harper, Palmer is very pleased with his recovery. "Jono didn't get to play a lot last season, because he was out for most of it with a back injury, but he's really just exploded this fall," said Palmer.  "He's one of the most dedicated guys I know, working hard in the gym, and he's just taken his game to another level."   He's an excellent outside shooter, with a high arcing shot and a quick release, and he's also got two of the biggest feet we've seen (at least the biggest since JJ Todd's size 20 which Mike Miller was seen sneaking out of the CSUDH gym with a couple of years back).

At the forward and post spots, Poly is going to have a wealth of talent, probably more than even Palmer thought he'd have.  Not all the players are interchangeable at all positions, but in high school basketball, as most people will tell you, the traditional "five" positions (PG, SG, SF, PF, and C) are not really very relevant. . . . most high school teams are lucky to have just one guy over 6'-6" and he usually plays center.  On this team, the Jackrabbits have seven guys over 6'-6" and,  its sort of ironic, just to show how little size sometimes factors into positioning, that one of the guys listed at 6'-4" is actually one of the best post players on the team (we're' talking about DeAndre Williams).

But let's talk about who is likely to be at the forward/wing spots first:  Donald Wilson is an athletic, tough player who transferred over from Jordan, and who will add some depth at the block, out on the wing as well as underneath the boards.   Reggie Butler, who is more of a power forward type-body, is a phenomenal athlete who will be available immediately (he's one of the few of the bigger guys who doesn't also play football), and as noted above, he's still growing and getting bigger all the time.   Markee White is another guy who can play anywhere from out on the wing to down on the block, a big time slashing forward who can dunk or drive, and occasionally has been known to put up a few shots from the short corner as well. Mike Roche was injured last year, but has greatly improved his game during the fall.   However, until things get started, Mike is really going to be the x-factor, a real unknown quantity. 

At the post, look for a couple of players:  DeAndre Williams is really a guard, but he plays the post a lot, is very quick, an excellent rebounder and very quick to the ball. Ryan Love, a junior who is injured right now, may also not rejoin the lineup until the football guys return, but when he does, he'll be a huge force inside and.  And then there's Manual Wright.  Talk about big, his main job will be to clear out the inside and grab the boards, scoring when he can up close and inside.

And no, we didn't forget about Marcedes Lewis.  Yes, he's a football player. And no he will not be available for the basketball team until after the CIF Championship football game (ok, nothing is guaranteed, but some things in life are pretty certain:  death, taxes, Poly being in a championship game. . . ) And yes we've been spelling his name wrong for a couple of years, despite several e-mails from his mom, telling us the correct spelling, which is with an "a". . . Actually she told us last season that Marcedes' girlfriend's name is/was Mercedes too, which must be confusing.  And about the name, she also told Fox StudentSports.com (in a very long article, one of the longest we've seen about any one player recently) that it's something she just made up, combining the carmaker with. . ..well, she made it up.  Marcedes is a big time football prospect.  Huge.   The kind who merits his own special story at Fox Sports (see the link above) in the football section of their website.  But they also had a lot to say about him from a strictly basketball point of view, and on the theory of avoiding the re-invention of the wheel whenever possible, here are some excerpts, some of which echoed a lot of what Coach Palmer told us two weeks ago when we chatted with him about this year's team and it's prospects for the future. Here are a few excerpts (you should check out the entire article at the link above):

marcedes_lewis1.jpg (18293 bytes)
FoxSports.com photo

"[Palmer] marvels at the exponential development of Lewis' hardwood game in the last six months alone.

"His development from last year to his year is unparalleled," Palmer said. "I saw it literally explode over the summer. Marcedes only scored a few points per game last year and we only saw glimpses of what he can be like now. He had a devastating summer — you could ask anyone who played us and they'll testify how good he is now."

One reason Lewis has been a late bloomer in basketball is simply because he wasn't into the sport despite being taller than his peers. "I never really liked basketball until I got to high school," he conceded. "I focused on football because I knew it best. Now I like basketball and football the same. I get better at both every day."

He's been primarily a role player in the first half of his high school career, coming off the bench, to show flashes of raw athletic ability. During his freshman season, he told his stepfather he was going to get a dunk one night. Sure enough, he got a breakaway and went well above the rim to slam it down. "I thought he was going to take the backboard down," laughed Mike Withers [his stepfather].

So which sport will take him the farthest? His basketball coach thinks it could go either way. For him, football comes first," Palmer said, "but he's a big-time basketball talent. I think he'll end up at 6-9, 6-10 and will be one of the few at that size that I'd classify as a Willie McGinest-type in that he'll be a man against boys soon."

"I think he's big-time in both sports," Palmer continued. "There's no question he's one of the very few to have come through here who will have the choice of both sports to play."

And then the coach said something interesting.

"He's so good on the court because football has given him the tenaciousness that he might not have if he just played basketball..

Poly will be playing in a lot of really high profile and solid tournament events, against some of the best teams in the country.  They'll start out with the Redondo Union 49th Pacific Shores Tournament, where they'll face such teams as Redondo, Bishop Montgomery, a much improved Leuzinger,  Gardena Serra, Moore League-rival Compton, Pali, and others.  That tournament takes place from November 27 through December 2 and all the games are at Redondo Union this year.

Poly plays no "preseason" games per se.  They will have a scrimmage (against Bishop Montgomery)  but from then on in it's strictly tournaments and games. "With all the stuff we do, we just don't have the time for preseason, non-league individual games," Coach Palmer told us. And with the level of teams we will be playing early, and so many of our guys playing football, I expect that we will take our lumps early and often with this young team," Palmer said.   "We won't be back at full strength until late December, and maybe not even then depending on the injury situation with some of the football guys, but hopefully everyone stays healthy.  I think we'll have a tough time early on, but that shouldn't fool anyone, because we will be a very good team.  Very good."

From the Pac Shores, it's back to Long Beach for the Rim Rattler Holiday Classic at the Pyramid, from December 18-22, where they will play against teams some of the top teams in the country, including national powers such as Mt. Zion, Rice, Miami Senior, Southern Lab, Springarn, Miami Christian, and top local teams like a completely revamped and tough Inglewood squad, Eisenhower, Santa Barbara, Compton Centennial, Mayfair, San Diego Horizon, Pasadena and league rival Jordan.

Poly will also be playing in the Modesto Christian tournament from the 27th-30th of December for the first time this year, and while coach Palmer didn't have all the details, he did say there would be some tough teams making the trip to the Central Valley, including Inglewood.   We'll have more details on this tournament shortly, as soon as we speak with Dennis Magro, who is reportedly putting the thing together. 

Poly also participates in several other "exposure" or "showcase" events during the season, and this year they'll be at the Double Pump Hoop Challenge which will be played on January 13, 2001 (MLK weekend).  Teams in the event this year will include Poly, Ocean View, Artesia, Mater Dei, Anaheim Canyon, Inglewood, Corona Centennial, Bishop Montgomery, Redondo Union, Long Beach Jordan, Villa Park, Fairfax and Westchester. . .and because the event takes place during the season, many of these will be league contests as well, so we'd expect to see Poly take on Long Beach Jordan, Inglewood matchup with Redondo, Fairfax v. Westchester, etc. . .

On February 3, Poly and Lynwood will host the "Poly-Lynwood" Classic, (aptly named) which is actually the event that Poly and Artesia used to host, another one day showcase event, which will feature a few of the same teams mentioned already, including Corona Centennial, Compton, Mater Dei, Artesia, and a few more, like Santa Margarita, Los Al, Ontario, and of course Poly and Lynwood.   

We also talked with Coach Palmer about his feelings for the upcoming season, the playoffs, the new structure for Division I, and his experiences last season in the playoffs, about which he had a lot to say.

"If we are treated the same way we were last year by the seeding committee in the State Tournament, I will not let my team play,"   Coach Palmer told us.  We asked him if he was serious about that and if he really felt comfortable having made that statement, whether it was just for our benefit or if he intended it to be for public consumption.

"Tell them exactly what I said," he replied. "If they treat us the way they treated us last season, I will not let my team play." 

What Coach Palmer was referring to was the seeding committee's decision about lack of any home games in Long Beach Poly's schedule during the CIF Southern Section and the State Southern Regional Tournament.  "From February 16 until March 10, we only played two home games. Two home games in a 64-team bracket, and when we won the Division I-AA title, and what did the seeding committee do to us?   They had us play our first game in San Diego, and then two days later, had us playing up in Fresno.  It was ridiculous, an impossible situation, and completely unfair to our kids," Palmer recalled.

When the Southern Section playoffs started Poly did have the luxury of two home games, but then the bus saga began:  First it was a trip to Ontario (not easy in rush hour traffic) to Rancho Cucamonga for the quarterfinals.   Then it was back to the Inland Empire to Eisenhower where the Jackrabbits beat Rialto.  Then down to Orange County where they beat Rialto at the Pond for the title.   And then the real fun started.

"We had just won the CIF (SS) title, and two days later, we're traveling close to 300 miles round trip on an air-conditioned bus to San Diego, turning around, spending one day in school, and then making another trip the next day, another 250 miles up through LA and into the Central Valley to Fresno on another air-conditioned bus," Palmer said. "We got to Clovis West one hour before the game, and none of our kids were ready to play, and everyone knew it.  Their legs were tight, guys had caught colds and were sick. It was just awful."

And then they had to turn around and make the trip back home after the loss to Clovis West.  "Really, if we see anything like that kind of scheduling again, I will make the decision and my team will not play," Palmer said emphatically.  " You just cannot do that to kids and expect them to perform and there's also the health and safety factors involved, not to mention all the missed classwork. There's got to be another way to do the State Southern Regional Tournament," he reasoned.  "Maybe do it over two or three days at a single venue.  You know everyone is worried about kids missing class, but our experience was horrible, and certainly wasn't done with the kids' schoolwork in mind," Palmer said.

Coach Palmer didn't really have too much to say about the recent Southern Section decision to split Division I into three separate divisions (I-AAA, I-AA and I-A).  He seemed about as concerned as anyone who has a realistic shot of taking his team there again this year might (which is to say that he seemed a bit concerned) when we spoke about the fact that that the State Championship Tournament only permits four entrants in a combined Division I from the Southern Section (LA gets two entrants, and the Central Section and San Diego each get one). "Whatever criteria is used to determine who gets that fourth spot, it's got to be objective and reasonable," Coach Palmer said.  We asked him if he felt perhaps the State Tournament itself should be expanded to take into account the greater number of teams in SoCal than in NorCal, so that the seeding committee wouldn't be forced to eliminate two runners-up in one of the three new divisions, but he really had not had time to think about it much. "It might make sense to do that, and I'm sure a lot of people will be coming up with ideas about how to make this process more fair for everyone."

Not that Coach Palmer is so smug that he thinks Poly is a lock for a D-I title, but with this roster and the competition they will see, not just from league opponents in the Moore League, which is likely the most competitive league in the State of California, but from all the tournament games, Coach Palmer is rightfully concerned about the health of his players and hoping to make it through with a return to the top. "It's a long season and we have done some very ambitious scheduling.   But then I've always thought that to be the best you have to play the best."

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