Landon Slone admits that every season he tends to echo John Calipari.

“Every year we’ve been young,” Slone said of his first three seasons as Paintsville’s head coach.

This year at least brings something of a departure.

“We actually have some veteran players back with experience,” said the former Tigers star who turns 30 in January.

Paintsville expects to be right back in the 15th Region race despite losing transfers Seth Williams and Brady Dingess to region rivals Johnson Central and Martin County, respectively.

“We return four starters,” Slone said. “I’m really excited. This team is so coachable. There’s just a different vibe in the gym than what we had last year. I feel these kids have come in and totally changed the culture from what it used to be.”

Slone said he’s especially pleased about the way the group comes in ready to work.

“There’s a lot of grit with this bunch,” he said. “It’s a tough group of kids. We demand a lot in our practices. It’s strenuous. Their work ethic would be the most exciting thing.”

Paintsville finished 19-8 last season and bowed out in the region semifinals to Pikeville for the second year in a row. Only one of the Tigers’ losses came by more than six points.

“We have a lot of talent offensively,” Slone said. “We want to make the game as fast as possible but do it in a controlled manner. They’ve done a better job with that. I think it comes with experience.”

Nick Keeton, a 6-foot-3 senior, ranked among the state’s top 10 rebounders last season with just under a dozen per game. He’s closing in on 1,000 career boards.

“Nick just has a knack for it,” his coach said. “When the ball comes off the rim, he’s there. What he’s done the past two years is develop his offensive game.”

 Keeton averaged 11.6 points as a junior on 64% shooting.

“We’re working to get him some college looks,” Slone said of the 4.0 student who attended Cornell University’s elite camp. “He’s one of those type kids a college coach dreams about.”

Sophomore Colby Fugate averaged 16.8 points and 7.1 rebounds last season to earn All-Area honors.  

“He’s got a very bright future,” Slone said. “Colby’s a really good shooter and can handle the ball. The biggest thing is getting better defensively and learning how to lead. He will be a top 25 player in the state by the time he’s a senior.”

Fugate’s freshman highlight came in the Raceland Derby Classic championship game. His 25-foot bomb at the buzzer beat Allen County-Scottsville, 72-71, for the title. Fugate was named Player of the Game after finishing with 19 points and 14 rebounds.

Jaxon Watts, a 6-2 junior, gets high marks academically as well as from his coach.

“You want to coach a guy like Jaxon Watts,” Slone said. “He can play multiple positions. He started eight or nine games toward the end of last season and has put on some weight. I think he will be the X-factor for our team. If he can give us some offensive production, it’s going to take our team to another level.”

Another junior, Braxton Tharp, slides into the point guard role. A solid defender, he averaged 8.5 points last season while spending time at shooting guard.

“I think if you took a coaches poll in our region, they would say he’s the best defender,” Slone said. “Offensively, he’s a scoring guard who gets people involved.”

Sophomore Baron Ratliff and freshmen Connor Fugate — Colby’s brother — and Jonah Porter are vying for playing time.

“It will take them a little while to adjust,” Paintsville’s coach said. “As talented as they are, and athletic, they are going to pick it up.”

Even with losing the two transfers, Slone looks for the Tigers to have a deep roster. He mentioned upperclassmen Ryan Gibson, Ethan Hensley and Rex Castle as being familiar with the system.

As usual, Paintsville won’t be at full strength until after Tigers’ football playoff run.

“I’m one of their biggest fans,” Slone said. “I have a lot of those guys in class. The coaches do a phenomenal job. It kind of speaks for itself.”

The basketball Tigers will spend most of their season on the road, with only a handful of home dates. Advancing out of the 57th District remains a tough chore because of Johnson Central and Martin County.

“There won’t be a bad district game in the 57th,” Slone said.

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