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Gulf Coast hopes better D leads to more Ws

By DUSTIN KENT
News Herald Assistant Sports Editor

 

PANAMA CITY — Gulf Coast had little trouble putting the ball in the net last year – finishing second in the Panhandle Conference at 84 points per game – but if the Commodores are going to be in the hunt for a conference title or a state tournament berth this season, they’ll likely need a breakthrough at the other end of the court.

 

The Commodores – ranked No. 10 in the preseason NJCAA Region VIII Coaches’ Poll – open the regular season Thursday and Friday in Pensacola with games against Faith Baptist and Santa Fe.

 

Gulf Coast returns one of the top sophomore players in the country in 6-foot-6 wing Jeremy Harris, who averaged 13.7 points and 6.3 rebounds as a freshman on 49 percent shooting from the field. But the Commodores will have to replace 74 percent of their scoring from a season ago.

 

Despite that fact, GC coach Jay Powell said he’s confident in his team’s ability to score consistently. The bigger question is how committed his players will be at the defensive end.

 

“Defensively, we’re still working to get where we want to be,” he said. “The commitment is there some days. Some days it feels like we’re growing everyday and getting better, which is a great thing, but I would still like to have some days where we leave the gym and I feel like we’ve had a lot of growth.

 

“We haven’t had a lot of those days where you can say guys have taken big steps forward. We’re taking some smaller steps, but that might be the way for this team to get where we want to be. I think the ability is there; it’s just a process of convincing guys who have done a lot of scoring to apply that same focus and aggressiveness on the defensive end. Once we figure that out, I think we’ll be a pretty good defensive team.”

 

The Commodores were last in the Panhandle Conference in scoring defense last season, surrendering an average of 88.3 points per league game – four points higher than the next-worst team. But Harris said he believes it will be a different story this year.

 

“I think we can be a better defensive team because this year’s team is more athletic than last year’s team,” he said. “We just need to commit ourselves to playing defense. Offensively, I think we’ll be just fine, but on defense we have to bear down and defend.”

 

Harris will likely have to carry a larger offensive load this season, but he said he is still focused on playing within himself and not trying to force the issue.

 

“I’m going to do the best I can, but it’s a team sport,” he said. “I think I’ve got to do a little bit more, but I’m just going to stay inside the system and play as a team player.”

 

Even playing “inside the system,” Powell said that Harris can be more aggressive in creating offense for himself and others, and he has seen evidence of that already.

 

“His game is maturing with some of his assertiveness,” he said. “I don’t think Jeremy lacks confidence, but maybe he has lacked an assertiveness where he felt like it was OK to go ahead and make that play either for himself or someone else. Sometimes he would defer to other guys, but he has grown and gotten better and going and getting the ball in his hands and making plays.”

 

The only other returning player with game experience is 6-3 guard Van Johnson, who averaged 6.6 points per game on 50 percent from the field and 36 percent from the 3-point line last year. Johnson had a strong finish to the season, averaging nearly 12 points on 55 percent from the field and 47 percent from three over his last six conference games.

 

“He finished the season probably as strong as anybody on our team,” Powell said. “Defensively, he just has a good competitive spirit and he’s shooting the ball even better now. He’s improved his shooting stroke a great deal. I want to give him a lot of credit because he’s done a really good job of stepping up and becoming a leader for our program, helping the coaching staff hold the younger guys accountable.”

 

Along with an increased leadership role, Johnson said his strong finish to last year makes him believe that he’s ready to take on a greater responsibility in terms of production.

 

“I feel like I’ll have a much bigger role than last year simply because of my work ethic and my ability to listen to coach and stay inside the system,” he said. “I did step up and play good during conference last year, and it did give me some confidence about playing in the Panhandle.”

 

Former Rutherford star Josh Wade also returns after a redshirt season last year, while the Commodores welcome in 10 newcomers featuring fellow local products Cody Johnson of Bay and Chris Shorter of Arnold.

 

Powell said that Johnson has impressed with his athleticism and aggressiveness defensively and on the boards, while the frontcourt trio of Londell King, Ricquail Smoot, and William Robinson will be counted on to produce in the paint.

 

The 6-7 Godby graduate King is a terrific rebounder with the ability to stretch the court as a shooter, while the 6-8, 230-pound Smoot provides the kind of back-to-the-basket post player the Commodores lacked last season. The 6-5 Robinson is a versatile forward who will try to replicate some of the all-around contributions of the departed Cobe Goosby with his ability to attack the basket and find open teammates.

“He’s one man I knew when we signed him that we would count on,” Powell said of the Baltimore native. “He’s a little bouncier than Goosby, but he’s the same type of player. He sees the floor well, can finish at the hoop, and is very competitive. You’ve got to have a couple of those guys in this league.”

 

At point guard, 5-10 Dyshane Murphy has taken command of the position, though 5-11 Dontavious Marshall from Bainbridge, Ga., has also carved out a place in the rotation with his play in camp and the team’s preseason scrimmages.

 

“They’ve played really well,” Powell said. “They are quick and both unselfish. They can get out and guard and put some pressure on the ball. I felt like at times last year we couldn’t really speed up the other teams’ offense and get them out of rhythm. I think these guards with their quickness will be able to do that in spots.”

 

Challenging for a conference title won’t be any easier than usual, with defending champion Northwest Florida State ranked preseason No. 1 in the state and the nation, and two other Panhandle teams slated higher than GC in the state poll in Chipola and Tallahassee.

 

Based on what he saw in the preseason, Powell said he believes the conference could be better across the board.

“After watching everybody play, I think everybody is good and we might all be better than we were a year ago,” he said. “I see us all at this point where it’s going to be the team that decides to play together, decides to be a unit and grind it out over the course of the year.”

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