Even if it disgruntled Big Blue Nation, Joe Hampton thinks the Blue Crew can take a lesson from an early-season college basketball shocker.
“We shouldn’t have watched Evansville beat UK last night,” Lewis County’s coach said, the day after the Purple Aces stunned the Wildcats in Rupp Arena on Nov. 12. “Anything can happen on any given night.”
As that relates to the Lions, Hampton believes it’s time not to be satisfied simply qualifying for the 16th Region Tournament.
The team with Lewis County’s most wins in school history fell short by one point to eventual state quarterfinalist Ashland in the region first round last season when a tip-in try at the buzzer didn’t go down. The year before that, the Lions came up six points shy of Rowan County in the first round. Two of the most accomplished teams in school history had dissatisfyingly short stays at Johnson Arena.
Now, Lewis County wants more.
“We’ve been there enough to know what it’s like and to be disappointed if we don’t do a better job of progressing,” Hampton said. “I’m hoping that motivates them, the fact that they realize that they are close enough to get it done. They just gotta get over that little hump.”
The Lions must replace four key contributors from last year to do it, but they return leading scorer and rebounder Sam O’Keefe (18.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg last season) and point guard Tanner Willis (5.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg) to start that effort.
“The cupboard’s never bare when your leading scorer’s returning,” Hampton said. “Got a ballhandler and got a versatile player like Sam, it’s a good place to start.”
The Lions (21-10 last year) return a host of experience that played off the bench last season. Some of it will be invited into the first five.
“It’s been a little bit of an adjustment, which as a coach that’s been here several years, that’s nothing really new,” Hampton said, pausing meaningfully on the word “several.” The region’s longest-tenured coach is entering his 21st season.
“But I think it’s kind of rinse-and-repeat year after year of getting those guys that played some role minutes for you, that got some good varsity experience, now they’re at that next level where they’re gonna be out there for the majority of the minutes,” Hampton continued. “Experience, you can’t replace it.”
Junior Bailey Thomas (3.3 ppg last season) got some of it earlier than expected when Willis went down to injury against the Tomcats at Johnson Arena.
“I’m hoping that’s a great springboard for him to come into this season and be productive, and he showed that he could on that stage last year,” Hampton said. “He had a pretty big summer for us.”
Senior Wyatt Yates and sophomores Trey Gerike and Logan Liles are getting long looks at significant playing time. They will play wings, while Willis and Thomas may interchange at the guard positions, Hampton said. Junior Kolby McCann is Lewis County’s third-leading returning scorer at 4.2 ppg and 2.9 rpg last season.
“I like the team, the potential it has,” Hampton said. “Now, whether we can get that full potential out of them is yet to be seen. I can’t sit here and tell you our practices have just been great, because they haven’t, but I like the potential I’m seeing. If we can get the effort and execution to blend in with it, I think we’ll be OK.”