At the start of the 2012-13 boys basketball season, this is what Gov. Thomas Johnson High School boys basketball coach John Manley had to work with: a point guard that struggled with ball-handling duties; one returning starter from a 4-19 team; big question marks as to how to fill the voids left by 6-foot-7 Tony Dowdy and 6-foot-5 Terence Stafford; and how to compete with talent-laden Oakdale, Tuscarora and Urbana.
It was not exactly a typical recipe for immediate success.
Yet here is Thomas Johnson, perpetually hanging around the .500 mark and always competitive.
“They're just a hard-nosed group of kids that work hard and love to play basketball,” Manley said. “These guys have bought into what we wanted to accomplish. We've been stressing defense, that our defense is going to dictate our offense.”
Manley originally had his Patriots playing man-to-man for 32 minutes every game, but he has since adjusted, switching to an aggressive zone that he said mirrors the style of Syracuse.
The switch has come with visible success. After Oakdale put up 74 points on the Patriots on Dec. 14, only two teams have broken into the 60s since. The Patriots lost those games by a combined four points. The second time they played Oakdale, the Bears were limited to just 47 points, their second lowest output of the season.
“The first time all we were worrying about was keying in on [Oakdale center] Zach Thomas,” point guard Kendle Pitts said. “We were just keying on him instead of just going out there acting like we've been there before.”
Like most elements of the Thomas Johnson basketball team, Pitts is somewhat of an enigma. After playing at Frederick and then taking a year off, the senior guard transferred over to the neighboring school in hopes of getting a little more focused on his schoolwork and rededicating himself to the game of basketball.
“At Thomas Johnson, it's get down to business and get serious,” Pitts said. “... I wanted to play. I didn't want to just sit there, I wanted to play.”
In order to play, there was one glaring aspect of his game that would have to be fixed immediately: he couldn't dribble.
“It took me a while,” said Pitts, who scored 25 in a 56-46 win over Walkersville. “My big man was dribbling the ball better than me. I was frustrated.”
While Pitts honed in on his left hand, others also began the process of either getting their feel for the ball back or learning the game essentially from scratch. Tony Dowdy's kid brother, Davonte, a 6-foot-5 senior, is in his first year of high school basketball while four others are in their first years as starters playing prominent roles.
“There's a kid who hasn't played high school basketball at all,” Manley said of Dowdy. “And he's starting to step up. I thought he was coming last year. If we had had him all four years, he wouldn't be as far behind.”
Temoi Roper, a fairly quiet and reserved player and one of the precious few with any game experience prior to this season, has had to step into a more vocal role.
“We were just trying to rebuild,” he said. “I was just trying to be a leader and focus on that.”
Finally, after going through the maddening process of completely disassembling and restructuring his squad, Manley seems to have found a winning formula. The Patriots kept their second meeting with Oakdale to within single digits (47-38), gave Tuscarora a genuine scare on Saturday (62-59), and every game has been within nine points for nearly a month.
“We're not a team that has a guy that you know is going to get 18 [points] a game,” Manley said. “We have to work all the way down to the last man, we have to do all the little things basically to make up for not having a superstar.”