Boys prep hoops preseason countdown: #9 NEW HAVEN BULLDOGS

James Gardner, right, drives against Leo last season. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
New Haven boys basketball coach Bruce Stephens communicates to his team during a game against Leo last season. (News-Sentinel file photo)

New Haven boys basketball coach Bruce Stephens won’t be reinventing his style of play. But his roster might ignite some tweaking.

Stephens’ style includes attacking with drives and quickness on offense and pressing on defense. He has a number of players with similar skills, which makes for a strong team approach.

“I expect us to be just as good or better than last year,” Stephens said. “We lost a lot of experience from last year, but if we can get some leadership, athletically and basketball-wise we should be the same team.”

But Stephens has something unusual this year in 6-foot-5, 220-pound Antwone Washington, who brings size and presence to the interior.

“Some of the teams we struggled with last year was not just teams with length but those that were physical and big inside,” Stephens said. “(Washington) can help push people off the block. He also has some skills to play inside on offense and that will help our shooters.”

OUTLOOK

New Haven finished 19-8 with a sectional title last season and returns two starters in 6-2 senior guard Brecar Clark and 6-1 senior guard/forward James Gardner. Senior guard Damario Robinson also returns with significant playing time from last season.

Stephens has a number of players on his roster who were also on the football team. Stephens encourages his basketball players to be multi-sport athletes because he feels it makes for better overall production. They know how to win.

“I really think this year defense is going to be our biggest strength,” Stephens said. “JC (Gardner) has always done a great job defensively. Brecar can play defense when he really wants to. Then you look at the bench: Zel Banks has a lot of quickness and he’s good defensively. Kentrel Thomas, also. They have toughness.”

FRONTCOURT

Davion Harris, a 6-3 senior, will be expected to contribute heavily at the four or power forward spot. The addition of Washington adds an element of size to the mix, but New Haven has always been a team that prefers interchangeable roles. A player might be a guard on offense, a forward on defense.

A major key, of course, is Gardner, who will be at the small forward or three spot. He averaged 10 points, six rebounds and five assists per game last season.

Gardner’s forte has always been defense, and he’s willing and able to guard practically any position on the court.

“He has guarded the 5 (center) sometimes,” Stephens said. “He’ll come to me sometimes and said, ‘I got him, coach.’ Since he was a freshman, I’d have him guard the best player on the other team. Unless they were 6-8 or 6-9, but even in some cases when they were. I think his tenacity is part of it, and he led us in rebounding for three years straight.”

Other contributors will be freshman power forward Thomas Latham and Kentrel Thomas.

BACKCOURT

The 6-foot Robinson steps into the lineup at point guard, where he’ll be able to use his ability to distribute or drive to the basket. Clark, the shooting guard, didn’t enter the starting lineup until almost midseason last year, but emerged as the team’s leading scorer, averaging 12 points per game and also dishing out three assists per game. Stephens has urged some Clark to step it up defensively, too. Zach Latham, another 6-3 senior, will be in the mix on the perimeter along Banks, Diquan Meriwether and Donovynn Sisson.

THE BIG QUESTION

Will New Haven be the best defensive team in the Northeast Eight Conference?

Two factors come into play when it comes to playing defense: persistence and inner drive. Stephens’ coaching style was developed after years of working alongside Al Gooden, and that means an emphasis on both defense and rebounding.

Gardner’s drive to be a defensive ace will rub off on the rest of the team. The fact New Haven has so many football players means they bring toughness to the court, too. The Bulldogs are likely to be a team that will cause headaches for the more offensive-oriented opponents they face.

BIG GAME TO WATCH

The Bulldogs travel to Homestead on Dec. 9, which will give them a taste of how strong their defense can be. Homestead always has a team that can hit from long range but find ways to penetrate for easy baskets. Even if New Haven doesn’t win this game, it should reveal what type of mix they have to make another run at the Northeast Eight Conference title.

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