By Russell Moore
FOR THE TIMES
Wallace State men’s basketball coach John Meeks still struggles to grasp exactly how his team went on its conference tournament championship run last season, winning four games in four days at the ACCC/Region 22 tournament to secure the program’s second state title in three seasons.
It was an impressive four-day stretch of March Madness at its best, especially after the Lions finished under .500 in conference play.
“I’ve been to the national tournament seven of my 10 years in coaching, and it’s definitely the highlight of my career. I was in tears. Our guys stepped to the plate, laid it all out on the line and left understanding there was a higher power involved in most of what we had done,” said Meeks, 29. “I’m still not sure how we did it. We had lost nine of 10 games to close the regular season, but our focus was still to make the guys believe they could win it. We could have easily folded the tent, not thinking we belonged, but for us to play with the passion and fortitude our guys did is a testament to what they were capable of doing.”
Wallace State completed last season with seven players on the active roster as the team advanced to the NJCAA Division I national tournament.
As Wallace State hosts Northeast Mississippi in its home opener Thursday, three of those seven return for Meeks this season as he embarks on his third year with the Lions. Jacquise Moore and Jamalcolm Griffin return in the backcourt and Ryan King is back at power forward. Moore was the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder last season, while Griffin was the third-leading scorer and tournament MVP after drilling 11 3-pointers in four games.
“The notion that those three experienced the highs and lows of last season should make them capable of being much better leaders for us this year. They’ve been charged with getting this team where it needs to be and continue the run we finished with last year,” Meeks said. “This is the first time I’ve had any returners here, and that should be an asset for us.”
Meeks has also assembled a deep and talented freshman class, snagging four highly recruited players from North Carolina and two from Virginia.
“We targeted a lot of freshmen for this class and were able to get a lot who wanted to come here, especially after last season ended the way it did. We were able to sway a couple of kids from rival conference schools just because of winning the state title,” said Meeks, who specifically pointed out the early work of guards Jestin Lewis and Marcus Johnson. “Jestin came from a quality high school program in Virginia and so far has excelled in what we want him to do. He’ll be very integral to our success. Marcus Johnson has a chance to be one of the best point guards I’ve had the opportunity to coach. He’s got a good feel for the game, is tough as nails and runs the team well.”
Alabama natives on the roster are Brandon Moss from Midfield High, Kevin Howard from Pinson, Bobby Strickland from Lee-Huntsville, Quinterian McConico from Woodlawn and Sylacauga’s Jaquan Threatt. Pinson’s Cody Farley is redshirting after suffering a preseason knee injury.
Meeks has beefed up the schedule in November and December, reserving competitive tournament dates in North Carolina and Panama City, Fla.
Additionally, Wallace State’s ACCC Northern Division features nationally-ranked Shelton State, an experienced Southern Union squad and others who are capable of contending for the division and league titles.
“You never know how teams are going to look in January after injuries and possible eligibility issues, but I know our division is going to be loaded. There’s not going to be a night where you can show up and expect to trounce the opponent. You better be ready to play,” Meeks said. “That should be good for us and good for the conference.
“We’ve got to continue and continue to make strides on the nice run this program has experienced the last three years. I think we are right there to improve annually and get us in that upper echelon in the national ranks.”