Clarkston – Dan Fife was in his comfort zone last Thursday, directing practice for his defending Class A state champion Clarkston basketball team.
Fife wanted to make sure the Wolves were ready for Tuesday night’s season opener at Wayne Memorial.
Clarkston is The Detroit News’ No. 1 team heading into the season, returning Michigan State-bound point guard Foster Loyer, along with 6-foot-9, 220-pound Taylor Currie, who is headed for Wisconsin and possibly 6-8 Thomas Kithier (MSU) who transferred over from Macomb Dakota.
Kithier’s transfer status is in jeopardy, with the MHSAA expected to make a decision if he will or will not be eligible to play.
Clarkston, 27-1 last season, will be the favorite to repeat as state champion, with a roster loaded with talent that also includes guards C.J. Robinson and Nick Wells.
“We also have some size with Matt Nicholson, a sophomore, Matt Dellinger, a freshman, and a versatile player in Hank Schemmel, who has the ability to play multiple positions,” Fife said.
Nicholson is 6-10; Dellinger also will provide a physical presence at 6-5 and 250 pounds; and Schemmel is a transfer from Maryland.
“Last season we had a lot to celebrate, but now that things are moving on, we have to buckle down because last year doesn’t mean anything,” said Loyer, who averaged 25.1 points and 6.4 assists, contributing 29 points, five rebounds and three assists in the 75-69 state championship win over Grand Rapids Christian. “We have to go into every practice and every game with the mindset of getting better, and we know we have a lot of work to do as a team.
“Sure, last year meant everything to us, but we know now that we’re going to go into each game knowing that the target went from being big to a lot bigger, and you know we embrace that, we love that. Each game, we’re going to go in with the mindset that we have a chip on our shoulder and have to take care of business.
“We have big expectations this year. We have a lot of size, a lot of skilled bigs, as well. They can really pass and shoot. We also have a lot of senior guard play, including myself and C.J. We know what it takes to get to that state championship game and play in that atmosphere and we want to get back.”'
Currie, who re-classified and is now a senior, saved his best for the state title game, connecting on 7-of-10 shots and scored 16 with 10 rebounds while making things tough for Xavier Tillman, who is now at MSU.
It was the first state championship for the 68-year-old Fife, who recently had his 50th year reunion at Clarkston and is now in his 36th season of leading the program, ranking fourth all-time in state history in wins (677-169).
BEST OF THE REST
2. Belleville (20-3, Class A)
Michigan State-bound 6-9 forward Gabe Brown and 6-2 senior guard Davion Williams return from a regional semifinal team and will be joined by 6-2 senior point guard Kaevon Merriweather, a transfer from Romulus, where he helped his team to the Class A Final Four last season.
Brown injured his knee during the AAU season this summer, but has returned to full strength. He averaged 15.9 points and 5.7 rebounds last season while shooting 60 percent from the field, including 41 percent from 3-point range. Williams is a dynamic player who can handle the ball and score from the perimeter or by taking the ball to the basket. Merriweather averaged 16 points and six assists for Romulus. Sophomore Connor Bush is another transfer, playing for Plymouth last year where he also won the high jump state title (6-6) in track as a freshman.
“Gabe Brown has practiced well and has no issue with his knee and has continued to elevate his game,” Belleville coach Adam Trumpour said. “Davion Williams is a four-year player for us. Kaevon Merriweather is a tremendous player and competitor who will be a college point guard, just a great addition. Those kids will all be good, and then we have an athletic three-year player in Devin Alverson. And (guard) Cam Smiley is the most improved guy for us.”
3. Detroit Cass Tech (19-5, Class A)
Coach Steve Hall returns an experienced group back from last year’s PSL championship team, which advanced to the Class A regional final.
“We have some veterans back and our JV team was 19-1 with 13 sophomores on it so we have some experience, and that usually goes a long way,” Hall said.
Hall returns six players who started at one time or another last year, led by 6-6 Randy Gilbert (Ferris State); 6-3 sophomore point guard Tyson Acuff, who is being recruited by North Carolina State, Purdue and Michigan; along with perimeter threat in 6-2 Matthew Richmond, 6-2 guard Christopher Murry and 6-5 junior guard Tyland Tate. Jalen Tobias, a 6-5 senior forward, brings toughness, and 6-5 junior Kalil Whitehead is possibly the team’s best athlete.
Richmond scored 20 in a regional final loss to U-D Jesuit, making 6-of-10 3-pointers.
4. East Lansing (24-1, Class A)
East Lansing has one of the premier players in the state in Michigan-bound power forward Brandon Johns, a 6-8 senior, who averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks to help his team to 24 consecutive wins before a regional loss to Mr. Basketball Isaiah Livers and Kalamazoo Central.
Johns earned a spot on The Detroit News Dream Team and is expected to be a Mr. Basketball frontrunner this season, trying to help East Lansing advance to the Breslin Center in front of the home fans for the Final Four in his senior year.
“We have an experienced group back despite losing three seniors from last year,” said coach Steve Finamore. “We have four starters and six total returners, an excellent freshman point guard in Marcus Wourman, and two solid players up from the JV team will add depth.”
Johns will be joined by 6-4 senior guard Noah Schon, 6-4 senior forward Justin McAbee, 5-7 senior guard Malik Jones, 6-2 junior guard Jack Morse and 6-7 senior forward Ben Zeka, with Wourman running the offense for East Lansing, which has won 31 straight conference (CAAC Blue) games.
5. New Haven (27-1, Class B)
Romeo Weems will try to lead New Haven to a second straight Class B state championship.
Weems, a 6-7 junior wing/point guard/center, averaged 18.1 points, 12.6 rebounds and four steals last season, coming up with a double-double (19 points, 10 rebounds) in a 45-36 state title win over Ludington.
Ashton Sherrell, a 6-7 senior forward, joins Weems, along with 6-0 senior guard Taveres Oliver and 6-1 junior guard Ronald Jeffery II, who split time as starters last season.
“The kids are getting better every day and it’s like we return four starters with Romeo (Weems) and Ashton (Sherrell) both having outstanding seasons last year and Tavares (Oliver) and Ronald (Jeffery) splitting starting duties,” coach Tedaro France said. “Romeo is a great leader on and off the court; Ashton can handle the ball and shoot the 3. I feel Tavares is one of the top shooters in the state and Ronald is one of our most skilled overall players.”
6. Grand Rapids Catholic Central (19-5, Class B)
Michigan State-bound 6-9, 200-pound forward Marcus Bingham and 6-8, 230-pound senior Jacob Polakovich return from a team that lost to Spring Lake in the regional finals.
Bingham (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Polakovich (14 points, 10 rebounds) each averaged double-doubles last season for former CMU guard TJ Meerman, who is now in his fourth season as head coach.
GRCC has a pair of solid point guards in juniors Austin Braun and Darrell Belcher, who returned from Arizona after playing his freshman year for GRCC.
Look for Bingham’s younger brother, 6-6 sophomore Mykel Bingham, to emerge this season.
“He gets the advantage of playing against two of the best post players in the state every day and it helps that he’s grown four inches in the last year,” said Meerman of Mykel Bingham, who is expected to play at the small forward spot.
7. Wyoming Godwin Heights (22-2, Class B)
Godwin Heights has an outstanding duo in 6-4 senior guard Lamar Norman (UTEP) and 6-8 senior Markeese Hastings, who will play at Butler.
Norman averaged 21.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists last season to help Godwin Heights advance to the regionals. Hastings averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds.
“Lamar is a very dynamic athlete who can score from all over the court and Markeese is very versatile and impacts the game greatly on both sides of the court,” said coach Tyler Whittemore.
8. Ann Arbor Skyline (15-6, Class A)
Skyline has one of the top backcourts in the state in Duquesne-bound point guard Brandon Wade and 6-0 senior Jack Ammerman, who has preferred walk-on offers from Central Michigan and Miami of Ohio.
Wade averaged 20.1 points, 6.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds to help Skyline earn its first SEC Red Division title in school history, finishing with a 9-1 conference record. He was at his best in the biggest games, coming through with a 35-point, 12-assist effort in a loss to eventual state champion Clarkston.
Ammerman averaged 16.6 points and shot 48 percent from 3-point range. Juniors Christian Knox and Ryan Wade will also be key contributors.
9. U-D Jesuit (20-4, Class A)
U-D Jesuit was dealt a blow when point guard Julian Dozier moved to Arizona following last year’s run to the state quarterfinals, along with the graduation loss of 6-9 post players Greg Eboigbodin and Ike Eke.
Still, the five-time defending Catholic League champions return standout senior guard Elijah Collins, 6-2 senior guard Zachary Winston – younger brother of MSU point guard Cassius Winston – and 6-4 Daniel Friday.
“We will be a small, athletic, hard-nosed, fast-paced team,” said coach Pat Donnelly.
10. Wayne Memorial (18-4, Class A)
Cleveland State-bound guard Rashad Williams will be among three starters back from last year’s KLAA championship team, which lost to Romulus in the district championship game.
Williams, a 6-2 senior guard, averaged 24 points, 6.7 assists and 4.2 rebounds, making 78 3-pointers to earn first-team all-state honors by The News.
Williams will be joined by first-team all-conference senior guard Terrance Williams, three-year starting guard Isaiah Lewis, who has an offer from Wayne State, 6-4 senior wing Kope Price, 6-4 senior Keshawn Hayes and 6-5 junior Cartier Suber Muse.
“We won the KLAA title last year and we’re a deeper team than last year,” coach Nkwane Young said. “We have a lot of guys that can play many different positions and I feel we have the best backcourt in the state.”
11. Detroit Edison (14-12, Class C)
Edison – which joined the PSL and split series with East English and King – had a postseason run to remember after starting it with a sub-.500 record before advancing to the Breslin Center to compete in a state semifinal game.
Don’t expect a sub-.500 regular season record this time around, not with an experienced group back, led by Central Michigan-bound point guard Pierre Mitchell, 6-5 guard Gary Solomon and physical 6-8 Deante Johnson, who will be a force inside at both ends of the court, showing his ability with a 17-point, nine-rebound effort in a 76-68 semifinal loss to Flint Beecher.
12. Benton Harbor (22-4, Class B)
Benton Harbor returns 6-6 Carlos Johnson, who was a freshman phenom a year ago (14.2 points, 14.1 rebounds, three blocks) to help his team reach the Breslin Center for the state semifinals.
Johnson will be joined by returning starters in senior point guard Elijah Baxter (10.5 points, 6.3 assists) and senior forward Shawn Hopkins (13.2 points, 6.3 rebounds).
13. Detroit East English (16-5, Class A)
Michigan-bound guard David DeJulius returns to lead East English after averaging 25 points and six assists.
DeJulius and junior guard Tariq Shepherd are returning starters. Senior forward Z’avon Godwin, sophomore forward Jayshawn Moore and junior forward Sudi McElroy will also be key contributors.
“We’ll be in the thick of it as usual competing for a city and state championship,” coach Juan Rickman said. “Freshman point guard Simon Wheeler will have a huge role in how successful we are this season.”
14. Troy (21-5, Class A)
Troy returns an experienced group from last year’s team that advanced to the state quarterfinals.
Troy has a strong trio in 6-3 senior Jason Dietz (16.7 points), 6-4 senior Leon Ayers (12.8) and 6-6 senior Danny Sully (11.5 points, 10.5 rebounds). Rob Banas, a 6-3 senior, and 6-0 junior Clay Sebastian will also be key contributors, with depth coming from 5-8 freshman Brody Parker, 6-1 junior Matt Johansson, 6-0 senior Cheikh Diop and 5-7 junior Nikola Palincas.
15. Detroit Pershing (10-12, Class C)
Pershing returns nine players, including four starters from a team that pushed East English to the limit before falling 82-80 in a PSL semifinal game.
“We return nine guys, six seniors, so we should be good,” coach Wydell Henry said. “I think experience is our strength, having six seniors being in a lot of games. We lost a lot of close games and we should know what we have to do to win those games now.”
Senior guard Ron Hill (17 points), 6-4 senior forward D’Juan Seal, 6-8 senior Johnny Davis (seven points, 10 rebounds) and 6-6 senior forward Jaylen Benning (11 points, seven rebounds) are the returning starters.
Seal, who averaged 22.5 points and 5.5 rebounds, has multiple Division II offers, along with Cleveland State, while getting interest from Detroit.
16. Southfield Christian (21-6, Class D)
Southfield Christian has a talented group, including three starters back from a state semifinal team that pushed eventual state champion Powers North Central to the limit before falling 84-83 in double-overtime.
Bryce Washington, a 6-3 senior guard, averaged 18.5 points and seven rebounds, contributing 23 points and seven rebounds in the state semifinal game. Junior guard Harlond Beverly (12.5 points) and Caleb Hunter also return. Beverly had 22 points and seven assists in the semifinal and Hunter, son of former Pistons guard Lindsay Hunter, 11 points and seven assists.
“We’ll be solid,” coach Josh Baker said. “Our perimeter game will be our strength.”
17. West Bloomfield (17-9, Class A)
West Bloomfield lost the bulk of its starters from last year’s state semifinal team, but returns standout senior guard Tre Harvey (15.2 points, 74 3-pointers). He will be joined by 6-6 senior Chris Oviasu, 6-4 senior James Faulkner and 6-4 senior Zach Isenberg.
Sophomore guard Shamar Mathews, Chase Glover and Sterling Miles will also be key contributors, along with transfers in 6-4 Donavan Moore, Jalen Kelso – son of Ben Kelso – and Rob Johnson.
18. Warren De La Salle (13-9, Class A)
Luke Pfromm and Justin Fischer are among three starters back from a De La Salle team that finished second in the Catholic League Central Division.
“Justin Fischer is a 6-foot-4 point guard who has great vision, is a great passer and can defend,” Coach Greg Esler said. “Fischer might be one of the top three guards in the state in the open court. Luke Pfromm is a 6-5 and a great one-on-one player who is super strong and can hit the long three. He has the ability to dominate a game. He knows how to win.”
Pfromm was the star of the Division 2 state championship football game last month at Ford Field, throwing for 207 yards and two TDs in a 41-6 victory over Livonia Franklin.
19. Saginaw Arthur Hill (14-7, Class A)
Arthur Hill returns talented point guard Jokwani Moore (17 points, six assists) and a big man in 7-footer Jimmy Bell from a team that finished second to state quarterfinalist Saginaw in the Saginaw Valley North Division.
20. Flint Beecher (23-5, Class C)
Outstanding guard Malik Ellison has graduated and moved on to Eastern Michigan, but three-time defending state champion Beecher still has a lot of firepower with Jalen Terry showing his potential as a freshman guard in last year’s state championship run.
Terry, a four-star sophomore with an offer from Iowa, scored 15 in a state semifinal win over Detroit Edison. He will be joined by a talented group that includes sophomore Earnest Sanders, who can score in multiple ways.