GREENSBORO – North Carolina A&T head men’s basketball coach Cy Alexander stands just outside of the outstretched paw of the A&T logo stenciled at the midcourt of Corbett Sports Center and calls his next play.
There is a slight problem. Freshman guard James Whitaker can’t quite remember how to execute it. As most head coaches do in his situation, Alexander informs Whitaker about his displeasure about not remembering the play. Associate head coach Jay Joyner refreshes Whitaker’s memory, but the freshman is a bit rattled as the end result of the play is Whitaker leaving his 3-point shot from the corner short.
Senior point guard Jeremy Underwood then calmly tells his new teammate: “It’s over with. You know the play now. Just calm down and hit the shot.” The encouraging words seem to have an influence. At Alexander’s insistence, the team runs the play again and Whitaker nets his 3-pointer from the corner.
Alexander, who enters his 23rd season as a head coach and his second as the Aggies head man, expresses that it is those types of moments in the preseason and in November and December that will set the foundation for a possible repeat of the 2012-13 season where the Aggies became MEAC Champions, NCAA tournament participants and NCAA first-round winners.
Alexander is relying heavily on the gentlemen who had those experiences – senior guard Lamont Middleton, Underwood, junior forward Waylan Siverand and sophomore forward Bruce Beckford – to guide the 10 newcomers he sees in practice every day.
“When a young man makes a mistake, they can’t be overly negative,” says Alexander, who adds all four men are currently starters. “They have to be able to reinforce positive play the next time by the way they address the issue. They have to trust the younger guys will get it. They have to lead.”
The A&T men have been practicing since Sept. 27. They will play in their annual Blue-Gold game at Corbett Sports Center on Friday, Oct. 25 at 6 p.m. Before the Blue-Gold inter-squad exhibition, there will be an Alumni Game featuring players from the 80’s 90’s and 2000’s. In approximately two weeks, Fayetteville State comes to Corbett for a 7 p.m., exhibition game on Nov. 4. Two days later, Allen University steps into the Dawg Pound for a 7 p.m., exhibition.
“What I’m hoping is that we are at a high level defensively by the first exhibition game,” says Alexander. “I want us to be able to play three of our eight defenses very well.”
By Game 1, which is 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 8 against Greensboro College at Corbett, Alexander wants his team to be progressing toward being a team that defends and rebounds consistently. If they can defend and rebound, they will run out in transition. Once they start running the break, they need to make good decisions.
Progress toward Alexander’s four keys occurs two months ago during a five-day, three-game exhibition trip to the Dominican Republic. Alexander also learns in the DR that he has a shooter in senior guard Richaud Pack. Pack knocks down 6 of 12 3-pointers in Santo Domingo to help the Aggies go 2-1. Over the past month in practice, Whitaker shows off his ability to hit perimeter shots.
“Surprisingly, which was a major question mark going into the year and training camp, I didn’t know how we were going to shoot the ball. But so far from the perimeter, Pack, Whitacker and MJ (Michael) Briscoe, the new guys, have shot the ball relatively well,” says Alexander. “If they can continue to do that, it answers a question that we all had as a coaching staff. Who is going to be our shooters?”
There is one more question to answer? Who is the Aggies’ fifth starter? Freshmen Steven Burrough and Jerome Simmons are rebounding machines, but they will likely play reserve roles as first-year players. Athletic swingman Denzel Keyes would certainly be in the mix, but he is running pass patterns for the A&T football team until at least late November. Pack is a nice weapon to have coming off the bench. The top two candidates are likely junior center Bryan Akinkugbe and freshman swingman Maurice Taylor.
Akinkugbe does not play in the DR because of a knee injury, but is back healthy. Taylor starts all three games in the DR and does excellent job of rebounding, defending and distributing the ball. Regardless of who is the fifth starter is, this season will come down to how well the seniors can lead.
“I have been very, very hard on Lamont, Jeremy, Bruce and Waylan because they had the opportunity, and they know what it takes to play that next level and win a championship,” says Alexander, while he waits for his team to finish shooting free throws. “The only way we’re going to be in the hunt to repeat is that those four guys bring it every night at a championship caliber level.”