While watching Montreat defeat Point University (Ga.) in mid-November, it was clear that this year’s Cavaliers’ basketball team may be the best to date under fourth-year head coach Garrett Jones. The squad handily defeated the Skyhawks and was out of the gate at 6-0 on the year before it paused for a Thanksgiving break.
The Cavs this season return a handful of names familiar to Swannanoa Valley college basketball fans. They include senior and career 1,000-point scorer Alonzo Mobley and fellow senior Jeron Hemphill, an all-conference selection for Montreat last year. The two are joined by juniors Terrell Sheffey and Austin Butler in the starting lineup.
The four returners are benefited by a significant presence in the paint this year, junior college transfer Nicodemus Payne.
“We added Nicodemus; he’s 6’8” out of Broward (Community College) and he’s extremely talented,” said Jones. “You typically don’t see his skill level in someone that size. He can shoot the three and do a little bit of everything. He’s been a big help filling that hole in the middle that we missed at the end of last year.
“I tell everyone this is our first year that we turn from a young program to one with guys now being juniors and seniors,” said Jones. “It’s been fun to see them grow and mature. But every season brings different challenges, so just because guys are older and have been in our program a couple of years doesn’t guarantee anything.”
Montreat competes in the Appalachian Athletic Conference (AAC) in all sports, and the league now includes a dozen teams in men’s basketball after adding South Carolina’s Columbia International in the offseason. With that many entries, the Cavs had to begin AAC play quickly this season to complete a full schedule that includes facing each league team twice.
“You’ve got to be ready to go out of the gate. A second week of November conference game counts just as much as one in February so you’ve got to be ready,” said Jones.
The key this year for Montreat is consistency. The 2016-17 team dropped four straight to end their season, despite going 19-10 on the year. Last year, the Cavs were hamstrung by a six-game losing streak in January. They righted course and finished 21-10 but fell in the second round of the conference tournament, short of their postseason aspirations.
“The guys are starting to learn what it looks like to be consistent, night in and night out, and I think that’s something that we’ve struggled with since I’ve been here,” said Jones. “We’ve been fortunate enough to win some games, but some nights we’re just not where we need to be and we’re not sharp.”
The Union Bulldogs have shown the most consistency overall in the past half-decade, and have been able to separate themselves from the AAC pack as a result. The Bulldogs were the NAIA Division II national champion last season.
“From what I’ve seen, this league has a lot of parity,” Jones said. “Union has obviously run the table for years now, so they’ve set themselves apart,” said Jones. “But there are a lot of good coaches and talent in this league. I feel like on any night we can beat anyone, but at the same time if we’re not sharp and not on top of our game, we very easily could get beat, too.”
A prong in Jones approach to achieving consistency is through handling the inevitable adversity that arises in basketball, particularly during road games. “From day one we talk about adversity and we apply a Bible verse, ‘Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy.’ Because when you go on the road, typically some type of adversity comes up.”
To that end, Jones attempts to simulate adversity in practice, effectively creating a comfort level for the Cavaliers with something they will inevitably encounter in games.
To date, it is working. Mobley and Hemphill are both off to strong starts, with Hemphill hitting 78% of this shots from the field, while Mobley is third in the conference in assists. Butler is 10th in the league in scoring, averaging 16.17 points per game.
“Austin has made a big jump in terms of his physical presence. And all the other guys really have continued to get better. It’s been a fun group to coach, just because they’re so competitive,” said Jones. “We’ve seen all these guys play enough now that we know what their strengths are and those stick out and they’re really good at what they do.”
Should those three need a respite, the Cavaliers’ bench is inordinately deep. It includes long-range specialist David Caldwell as well as 6’7” forward Jordan Eaton. Sophomore E.J. Reed will see ample time in the backcourt and showed star potential as a freshman. Seniors Darrian Patterson, Derrick Cusano, and Cody Miller gave Montreat solid height and minutes off the bench last year and will reprise their roles this season.
Sophomore Daniel Vitiello arrived this year from Broward along with Payne and has impressed early in 2018.
Jones assessment of three of his top players should give the rest of the AAC cause for concern. “I will say that Austin, Jeron, and Alonzo – they’ve all gotten better at adding different things to make them more complete players. I think their best basketball is ahead of them.”
Montreat returned to play on Nov. 28 when it faced the AAC’s Bryan College on the road.