Michigan high school basketball: Checking in on top guards in state – Detroit Free Press
After playing in three of the past four Division 2 state championship games that were actually played — who can ever forget the 2020 COVID-19 finals that weren’t? — this has not been a typical first half of the season for the Grand Rapids Catholic Central boys basketball team.
The Cougars began the season by dropping their first three games. But these were not three ordinary teams — Rockford, Grand Rapids Christian and Muskegon — that knocked off CC.
“The three games we lost were to three of the top 20 teams in the state,” CC coach TJ Meerman said. ”For the first time in four or five years, we knew that it may take 10 or 15 games for our chemistry to really grow.”
Well, the Cougars are growing. They won their next seven games before losing, 72-56, Saturday night at Akron St. Vincent St. Mary, the school that gave the world LeBron James.
THIS WEEK’S RANKINGS:Michigan boys, girls high school basketball: Super 10, Top 10 in each division
Meerman wasn’t too worried about the start to the season because of the presence of the best backcourt in the state.
Durral (Phat Phat) Brooks is the best junior in the state; he proved it again last week by scoring 43 points against Wayland and 32 versus Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills.
Then there is point guard Kaden (KK) Brown, a Wright State commit who scored 30 points Saturday; all he has done is become the school’s all-time leading scorer with over 1,200 points. Both Brooks and Brown are averaging 23 points.
The 6-foot-2 Brooks has been offered by Michigan State and Michigan, with other schools gaining interest in him.
“He’s been playing great for us,” Meerman said. “It’s a tough spot for him because he’s such a good defender, he defends the other team’s best player. For him to increase his scoring and rebounds the way he is and defend with our schedule has been very impressive.”
Brooks and Brown have been asserting themselves offensively because they don’t have any other options. Making matters worse was 6-5 Nate VanTimmeren’s decision to enroll early at Central Michigan for football, costing CC its only experienced big man.
“Outside of KK and Phat, who are obviously very good players, we have a lot of guys that haven’t had varsity experience on our team,” Meerman said. “We’re pretty young and without VanTimmeren, our bigs are really young and don’t have a lot of varsity experience.
“We had a lot of learning to do in those games.”
Even Brooks and Brown had to adjust their approach this season.
“For KK and Phat, as talented as they are,” Meerman said, “just learning to play with five defenders focusing in on those two guys has been something for those guys to learn.”
They have learned well and so have juniors Carter Meerman, DJ Nystrom and senior Mike App, who were support players a year ago.
The key to getting back to the Breslin Center may depend on the development of 6-5 sophomores Jack Bowen and Jamie Williams.
Then there is the mentality of playing for a program in which it is almost taken for granted that it will to make a trip to the final four every season.
“That is an expectation,” Meerman said. “It’s something that our group this year has had to adjust to a little bit as well — to be the hunted in every single game takes a lot out of your guys, and our young guys had to learn that pretty quickly.
“The first two or three games, when we lost, the other team had halfcourt celebrations, but those were good lessons for our young team.”
Wayne girls basketball coach Jarvis Mitchell knows exactly what the GRCC boys team went through. Wayne won its opener and then lost its next three games.
“I started two freshman,” Mitchell said, “and we played three top teams.”
After beating a good Grand Blanc team, the Zebras were blown out by Chicago Whitney Young — one of the top teams in Illinois — and then dropped two-point games to Detroit Renaissance and Hudsonville.
Since then, the freshmen guards — Mariah Cross and Morgan Smith — have acclimated to high school ball, Wayne has won eight straight and the Zebras are ranked No. 9 in Division 1.
“Starting two freshmen is always rough, but they’re pretty good,” Mitchell said. “We had some blunders, a couple of coaching mistakes I made, and we were trying to figure it out.”
Wayne could afford to start a pair of freshmen because of seniors Mayla Ham (Georgetown) and Paris Bass (North Dakota), who are essentially guards, but can also play inside.
“I basically start all guards,” Mitchell said. “Mayla Ham and Paris Bass are like 5-9 and 5-10, but they have good guard skills. They can rebound with the best with them and they’re tough kids.
“And the greatest thing that helps us out is there are not a lot of quality bigs in the state of Michigan as far as back-to-the-basket type kids. Everybody wants to play guard.”
Ham carries much of the scoring load, averaging 19.4 points to go with 9.7 rebounds while Bass adds 9.6 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.
“Mayla is a guard who is lanky,” Jarvis said. “She shoots the 3 very well. She penetrates really well and she rebounds like a mad person. Her freshman year she broke our rebounding record (18 in one game). She’s been blessed with a lot of athleticism.”
Helping, too, is that Jarvis is blessed with an outstanding sophomore point guard in Colleena Bryant, who started last season and makes life much better for Cross and Smith.
“There’s not a lot of pressure on them, a lot of it goes to my point guard,” he said. “She kind of controls all of that. She alleviates that part of it for me. You can’t coach every possession. She’s one of the reasons why we got to the final four. She’s got that experience.”
Wayne has made the final four an annual event. The Zebras have been to four consecutive final fours, and a lot of it is due to the way Walker schedules.
The Zebras will visit Westerville South (Ohio), another tough nonconference opponent, on Saturday.
“I do it like that so we can play in March,” Walker said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful in getting to the final fours. I’m OK with losing the first three as long as we’re not playing cupcakes. It would give us a false sense of what’s really out there.”
Despite getting to all of those final fours, the furthest thing from Walker’s mind now is Wayne’s path just to get back there.
“That’s one of the things I don’t do is look ahead,” he said. “Of course, it’s always in the back of your mind. But when you get to over-preparing and thinking you’re already going to be there, you’ll get upset and it causes a different kind of hurt.”
The Saline boys posted a bit of an upset last week when they knocked off previously unbeaten Division 2 No. 4 Chelsea, 62-60.
The bigger story here is that Saline’s 6-2 Jonathan Sanderson scored 39 points. By the way, he is only a freshman. Better yet, Sanderson scored 17 points in the fourth quarter.
“He had some clutch shots down the stretch,” Saline coach Michael Marek said. “We’re never out of it with him because he comes down and just makes a play and he can just makes shots. He’s a D-I caliber player the way he makes these shots. He’s going full speed and he’s able to stop and square up his shoulders. It’s pretty unbelievable.”
For the game, Sanderson was 14-for-24 from the field, including 7-for-12 on 3-pointers.
“He took the most shots on the team,” said Marek, “and had the highest field goal percentage. That doesn’t happen.”
A lot of things that don’t usually happen don’t apply where Sanderson is concerned. He scored 20 points in his first game and has scored in double figures in every game except one while averaging 20 points.
He also brings a lot to the team besides scoring a bunch.
“He’s also a really good leader, on and off the court,” Marek said. “Even though he’s a freshman, the upperclassmen respect him. He leads and he gets after it on defense; he plays hard. He loves the game, you can tell.”
Sanderson’s father, Jon, is the strength and conditioning coach for the Michigan men’s basketball team and you can tell the youngster grew up hanging around the gym.
“He looks like a senior out there,” Marek said. “His dad’s pretty tall and he’s got a lot of room to grow.”
Mick McCabe is a former longtime columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1. Order his book, “Mick McCabe’s Golden Yearbook: 50 Great Years of Michigan’s Best High School Players, Teams & Memories,” now at McCabe.PictorialBook.com.