HANCEVILLE, ALA. – Wallace State's 25th-ranked men's basketball team opens the 2014-15 season this weekend at the Chipola Classic in Marianna, Fla.
One thing is for certain this season for the defending Alabama Community College Conference/Region 22 champions: sophomore guard Lee Moore will take the court each night as one of the top junior college players in the country. Moore returns to the Wallace State backcourt after averaging 18 points and 7.2 rebounds per game as a freshman.
Moore, a Kennesaw, Ga., native, was the 2014 ACCC tournament MVP during his first year in Hanceville and a first-team All-Region 22 member as the Lions won their second conference championship in three seasons under coach John Meeks.
The progress of a young Wallace State supporting cast around Moore and fellow sophomore Kriston Beasley should determine if the Lions can successfully defend their reign atop the conference.
"We've got to live team by team. Last year's team was last year's team and this year's team can't live by those expectations. They have to set their own goals and expectations. We are staring down the possibility of starting four freshmen this season and being one of the youngest teams I've had. However, it's by far the most talented freshman class I've had as well. We emphasize that on a daily basis. They understand that youth means we have to have longer practices, be more dedicated and use extra gym time, extra weight room time and extra time in the film room if we want to be good," said Meeks, who's entering his fifth season with the program. "We understand we may take some lumps early, but our goal is to get better each game and each week. We want to be better by the time January and February hit and hope to be playing deep into March."
Wallace State has shined in March a lot under Meeks, who has a career 82-51 record with the Lions. In just Meeks' second season at the helm in 2012, his Lions earned a conference tournament championship by winning four games in four days as a No. 6 seed and made the program's second NJCAA national tournament appearance.
Last season, Wallace State and Meeks, 31, relied on an experienced sophomore core and went wire-to-wire as conference champions, winning the ACCC regular season and tournament titles. Meeks also led the Lions to a NJCAA national tournament double overtime victory in an opening-round game against Westchester (N.Y.) College. Wallace State's season ended with a 28-7 record after losing in the second round to Vincennes University.
Wallace State orchestrated one of the best campaigns in program history behind seven sophomores, including Jestin Lewis, Marcus Johnson and Cody Farley.
"The regular season title represents the full body of work of an entire season, and our guys laid it on the line each and every night, especially down the stretch with injuries and guys playing out of position. It was a huge accomplishment to win the regular season," Meeks said. "From a tournament standpoint, it was exciting for our guys to win the title on our home court. You always want to defend your home. Our guys felt they had unfinished business from the previous year. We wanted that championship to be ours."
Minus Moore's offensive exploits, a huge chunk of Wallace State's scoring and rebounding from last season is gone.
Moore, who has already committed to UTEP after he leaves Wallace State, shouldn't miss a beat during his sophomore season.
"There are very few weaknesses from Lee Moore on the court. There's no doubt he's our best player on a daily basis, so we've challenged him from a leadership perspective this season. We want him to come out every day and prove he's the best player and not give the coaching staff a reason to be disappointed in him in certain areas. He's done a very good job so far of stepping to the plate and embracing that role," Meeks said. "Lee Moore wants to lead this team. He wants to take this team to the next level. He's got a real dedication in wanting to get another ring before he leaves here."
Among the newcomers, Meeks feels a pair of high school teammates, Dante Battle and Immanuel King, can provide a strong presence in the front court.
Battle and King were both standouts at Rocky Mount High School in Rocky Mount, N.C., where they both won a state championship as sophomores.
Battle, a 6-foot-7 forward, was the tournament MVP during the state championship year and finished his senior season averaging 16 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. Battle, who finished his high school career with 1,391 points and 897 rebounds in 109 games, is listed among the NJCAA Region 22 preseason top freshmen of the year.
King stands at 6-foot-9 and is best friends with Battle. Wallace State redshirt freshman Jacob Barrett is also from Rocky Mount, N.C.
"Dante Battle and Immanuel King have both really stood out, not just from a talent standpoint, but from having a strong work ethic and being coachable. They were both stars in high school. They've been more prepared than probably what I gave them credit for as far as coming in and knowing what they needed to do," Meeks said. "They've set themselves apart at the two interior positions."
Meeks has also praised the preseason work of guard Xavier Mills, another North Carolina native.
"Xavier is my first freshman captain in the last three or four years. He has really stepped up and been a leader and encourager. Xavier is like a coach on the floor. He's done just a tremendous job of embracing his role and doing what he needs to do at point guard," Meeks said. "Xavier, Donte Battle and Immanuel King have really separated themselves among the freshmen as far as their attitudes and work ethic. We're going to need new guys step up as we embrace the challenge of competing every day."
Remaining freshmen on the 2014-15 roster are guard Bennett Wilson (Newberry, S.C), guard Jaylin Henderson (Oak Ridge, Tenn.), forward Tyrell Clary (Huntsville), guard Kylen Butler (Danville, Ill.) and forward Devorice Milbry (Huntsville).
Sophomore transfers on the roster are guards Linwood Ruffin, Sidney Knox and Richard Smith.
Wallace State's men play at home only twice before January. Along with this weekend's Chipola Classic, the Lions are scheduled to play in the Gulf Coast
Thanksgiving Classic in Panama City, Fla., and the Brunswick Holiday Classic in Supply, N.C., before Christmas. The Lions will host the Comfort Suites New Year's Tip Off on Jan. 2-3.
Wallace State's home opener is Thursday vs. Wallace-Selma at 7:30 p.m.