HANCEVILLE, ALA. – When the Wallace State's men's basketball team has returned a strong core of sophomores under coach John Meeks, it has normally spelled postseason success.
The Lions, who open the 2015-16 season today at Cleveland State, hope to continue that trend this season with a sophomore quartet of Immanuel King, Kylen Butler, Tyrell Clary and Xavier Mills returning to the fold.
"I feel good about this team. Those four returners exemplify the leadership we need across the board, both on and off the court. From a leadership standpoint and from a work ethic standpoint, they are the epitome of what every coach says he wants," said Meeks, who's embarking on his sixth season at Wallace State. "The sophomore returners felt what it was like to be near the bottom of the conference last season and saw what life was like without basketball. They have responded very well since then. I think there's great balance among those four guys."
A year after finishing with a 15-16 record and making a rare opening-round postseason exit, all four Wallace State sophomores are on the NJCAA Region 22 Top
Returning players list as the Lions shoot for their third conference championship in five seasons.
King, a 6-foot-9 forward from Rocky Mount, N.C., averaged 5.9 points and a team-high 5.7 rebounds as a freshman for the Lions, and Meeks has enjoyed watching King make tremendous strides in the offseason.
"Immanuel King is not even remotely the same player we signed. He's 50 pounds heavier and two inches taller than he was last season. He was a really big cog in what we did last season," Meeks said. "Immanuel has been our most consistent player in the preseason. He's the hardest worker in practice. He's not a leader from a vocal standpoint, but more of a leader by example. Immanuel sets the tone and teammates notice."
Butler was one of Wallace State's top 3-point threats and defensive stoppers last season, and Clary, a Madison County High grad, joins him as a returner in the backcourt.
"Kylen Butler is a shooter and the epitome of a defensive guru. He'll be a college coach one day. He has a great understanding of the game," Meeks said. "Tyrell Clary is the consummate teammate. He's going to do whatever he's got to do win. He doesn't care how many minutes he gets or how many shots he gets. He's going to work hard every day and push guys to do their best."
Xavier Mills, a North Carolina native, led Wallace State with 72 assists last season at point guard and is expected to carry a larger load this season.
"Xavier Mills has made a lot of improvements and is shooting the ball very well right now," Meeks said. "We need Xavier to take more of a leadership role this season, run this team and be an extension of me on the court."
Meeks is three wins shy of 100 career victories at Wallace State. The 32-year-old has led the Lions to a pair of conference championships (2012, 2014) through different styles, whether using a high-tempo attack or relying on defense to create points.
Meeks believes his latest team can beat opponents with its shooting capabilities.
"This team can really, really shoot. That's probably the biggest strength of our team. We have around five guys who can be 40 percent 3-point shooters. It's unusual to see that on the junior college level," Meeks said. "We have to make sure it's not a negative aspect. There are going to be nights where you don't shoot it well, and you are going to need to step up in other areas of the game to win. We'll need to see how we respond when we don't have a strong shooting night."
Marcus Barham, a transfer from Eastern Florida State College, should be an additional offensive weapon for Meeks to call upon. Before transferring to Wallace State, Barham averaged 5.7 points at Eastern Florida last season, shooting a team-best 39.8 percent from behind the 3-point arc.
Sophomore transfer Darren Williams and freshman Jaylen McCoy, a 5-foot-11 guard from Montgomery, are also expected to be valuable pieces to Wallace State's offensive arsenal.
Williams averaged 8.6 points last season at Midland College in Texas, and McCoy was the AHSAA Class 4A Player of the Year after a sensational senior campaign at St. James School.
"We brought Darren Williams here last spring, and he saw some of our highs and lows. He's a special player. He can play multiple positions and is someone we'll have to have on the court," Meek said. "Jaylen McCoy has been really impressive as a freshman. He's a great kid who has had structure in his life, both on and off the court. Those players tend to do well here. Jaylen buys in and puts both feet in the boat. He's not going to sit on the fence about anything. Both guys have stood out with their desire to do the right things on and off the court."
Other transfers on the Wallace State roster are Derylton Hill (Potomac State College), Wilmer Johnson (Baltimore City CC), and Tyler Hopkins (Sheridan College).
Nubian Spann, a 6-foot-4 forward from North Carolina, and Georgia native LaParis Hall join McCoy as part of the freshman class.
"All of these guys are poised to have a good season. The returners want to get the bad taste out of their mouth from last year. We've garnered the respect of the league by earning some Top 25 votes in the national poll," Meeks said. "People seem to believe we are going to be one of the teams there at the end. It's going to be a marathon and not a sprint. We've got to take baby steps along the way and not necessarily look straight at the finish line."
Wallace State will play the majority of its games on the road before Christmas, including a mid-November trip to the Dominican Republic. The Lions will host both Thanksgiving and New Year's tournaments before conference play begins in January.
Picture: Pictured are front row, from left, Kylen Butler, Tyler Hopkins, Jaylen McCoy, Darren Williams, Wilmer Johnson, Xavier Mills and Marcus Barham, back row, from left, Xavier McCoy, Derylton Hill, Immanuel King, LaParis Hall, Nubian Spann and Tyrell Clary.