As a new season for the Milan Big Reds boys varsity basketball team approaches, few faces could show the promise of a new campaign brighter than that of team head coach Chris Pope.
Milan head coach Chris Pope (center) prepares his team with a play during a timeout of a game last season. (File photo by Paula Dotson)
Heading into his third year at the helm, and armed with the knowledge gained over his previous two seasons, a relaxed look is on his face as he explains the team’s expectations for the upcoming campaign.
“(I’ve learned to) appreciate the process and to enjoy the journey,” he said in a recent interview. “Each team is going to be different, and you have to find what clicks with each group. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve been able to learn.”
Last year, the same could not be said for the group. Despite 10 of 14 players being seniors, leadership issues and a lack of varsity basketball experience for many of the players hampered the season. The Big Reds rode highs and lows to a 12-10 finish – their worst record since 2009-10 – and did not defend their four straight seasons of winning the Huron League title, losing the crown to SMCC.
Back to the team are junior guard Trevor Ballard, senior guard Kenari Moore, senior forward Maxwell Milliken and senior hybrid Jeremy Morgan. Ballard and Morgan have the most playing experience of the returners. Milliken played sparingly last season, while Moore was on the varsity roster but missed part of the season due to a broken wrist.
New to the team are freshman Tristan Hines, juniors Gage Feeman, Ethan Wood and Antonio Walker, and seniors Demetrius Barnes, Kyle Briggs, Jarius Hamilton, Dante Hurst, and Desmond Walker.
Trevor Ballard (0) drives down the court during a game against Flat Rock last season. (File photo by Paula Dotson)
There is also a new assistant coach on the bench; Jeremy Morgan, the father of the senior player, is taking over the duties from Ron Tarrant.
Despite the overhaul in parts of the program, the focus of achieving success remains.
Pope envisions the starting five being Ballard, Hamilton, Morgan, Milliken and Antonio Walker. “With that starting five, we can compete with anybody,” he said. “I think Trevor and (Jeremy) are going to be our leaders this year. Antonio is going to be the glue that holds us together. I’m going to ask Jarius and Maxwell to do the dirty work inside – rebound and be our interior force.
“When we bring in our subs, we’re going to a small and quick lineup. We are probably eight, nine … maybe ten deep. It’s just a matter of finding the right combinations each game, and the kids have to buy into that. One game they might get playing time, and the other they might not. We have a lot of good athletes we can put on the court at one time.”
Jeremy Morgan (white jersey) drives for a basket in a game last season. (File photo by Paula Dotson)
Cohesiveness will also be more of a strength than last season. “When we brought the kids in, we broke the roles down and told them what we expected out of them,” Pope said. “Hopefully they have a better understanding of who to get the shots to and who to pass to. As long as they stay within the boundaries, we should be successful. There’s going to be a give-and-pull with me as a coach to let them be able to make mistakes and still be able to keep going.
“It’s going to be a balancing act on my part.”
Pope notes that he believes the chemistry is better between the players, and that will drive them to more success. “I think they’ll be able to pick each other up and play off each other better,” he said. “Understanding the offense and defense puts them in a better position to be more successful this year than last year.”
The coaching staff also has new offensive and defensive schemes this season, a point that Pope says was part of the problem last year. “I tried to force some of our kids into our old system when I could have tweaked it,” he said. “For the team we have (this year), we’ve built a system around them – and if I get them in the right positions, they can (make plays). It turns into wins and improves their confidence.”
The main issue for Milan will be their lack of height, Pope says, since the tallest players on the team are Hamilton and Milliken at 6-foot-4.
Despite that, the third-year coach attributes conditioning to be a catalyst of better athleticism. “We need to be in better shape to be able to play, and that’s one of the things we’ve worked on,” he said. “We’re going to play more zone this year, just for the simple fact of lack of height, but it can keep us in games. I feel we can disrupt some things, and it’s easier to teach the zone concept rather than man-to-man.”
The 19-game regular season schedule includes nine home games and 10 road games. Five non-conference opponents will play against the Big Reds; four of the five contests are prior to conference play. The campaign begins with a home opener against Lincoln on Dec. 9.
Road contests against Onsted (Dec. 13) and Chelsea (Dec. 22) wrap up the December slate. 2017 begins with a home game against Tecumseh on Jan. 6; the final regular season contest is March 2 at Dexter.
“(The first four games) will give us a gauge to see where we’re at,” Pope said. “Lincoln’s going to have athletic players. Onsted has some bigs. If we can go 2-2 or 3-1 out of that, I’ll be pleased.
“Going up against the other competition is where I think we’ll really get our test to see where we are as a squad.”
(At the time of this writing, the initial season opener at Saline on Dec. 6 was cancelled. The Hornets have a game against Northville scheduled for that night. No makeup date has been announced. The regular season is a maximum of 20 games, and without that contest, Milan is set to play 19 games. This article will be updated if there are any changes.)
In game situations, Pope aims for his team to score 60 points and places an emphasis on defense. “If we can’t hit a basket, we can still defend,” he said. “I think we’ll find ways to score. We have a couple scrappy kids that can get into a game and get us baskets in transition. If we can score 60 points and hold teams under 55, we can have success.”
The Huron League portion of the schedule will begin and end at home; Milan begins the conference battle on Jan. 10 against SMCC and plays the finale against Grosse Ile on Feb. 24.
Last year, the Big Reds – who had a 10-4 record in the conference – finished in a tie for second place with Grosse Ile. Since the 2010-11 season, SMCC and Milan have been the only two schools to win Huron League championships.
“SMCC is head and shoulders above everyone else in the league,” Pope said. “They’re going to be the favorite to win the league, and until you beat them, they’re going to stay the favorite. I think we can compete with them this year. We’ll see.”
Milan High School will also host regional playoffs, beginning on Monday, March 13. The playoffs start the prior Monday, with the Big Reds beginning the district playoffs at Carleton Airport.
Prior to the start of practices, Pope and the elder Morgan had players write down individual and team goals on 3-by-5 index cards. “One of the team goals was to win the Huron League,” Pope said. “One of the other team goals is to win districts so we have a chance since we host regionals. If you can get into regionals when you have a home game, anything can happen. We’d love to have a chance to play for a regional title at home.
“If we can get 15 wins and win a Huron League championship, or have it come down to the last game against SMCC, that’s what I’d like to see. If we could compete for a district championship, that’s where I’d like it to be. The biggest thing would be if we could get back to Milan and (play) in the regional – I think everything else would pale in comparison. By the time the year ends, hopefully we’re playing (our) best basketball.”