By Russell Moore
Special To The Times
Wallace State men’s basketball coach John Meeks has the utmost confidence in his sophomore guard duo of Jestin Lewis and Marcus Johnson.
“I think they have the chance to be one of the best returning backcourts not only in our league, but in the country. No one we play is going to be able to stack up against those two,” said Meeks, 30. “They are two of the best in the league and especially want to make sure they leave their mark on the program this year.”
As one of the most experienced teams in the conference, a cloud of optimism surrounds Wallace State’s men’s basketball team entering the 2013-14 season, which began Friday at Columbia (Tenn.) State. If Lewis, Johnson and the Lions take another expected step, Wallace State should be in strong contention in March for its second state title in three years.
It’s no secret Lewis was Wallace State’s go-to man last season, when the Lions went 17-14 and advanced to the ACCC quarterfinal round. He finished second in the conference by scoring 17.1 points per game, earning him a second-team All-Region honor and a first-team All-ACCC North Division selection. He also dished out 85 assists, good for second on the team, and was second on the team with 68 steals. Lewis shot a team-best 42 percent (56-for-135) from 3-point territory and 77 percent from the free-throw line.
When Wallace State needed a clutch basket, Lewis’ number was called. More often than not, the Virginia native delivered.
“Jestin has really matured as a person and player since he got here. He kept us in a lot of games late in the season and ended up being our go-to-guy down the stretch. Jestin has come back with a renewed focus and wants to win this league more than anyone else,” said Meeks, who’s entering his fourth season with the Lions. “He has already signed with Mercer. One of his goals was to get that out of the way so he can take this team where it needs to be. Jestin is one of the best players in the conference and has a chance to be the all-time leading scorer in Wallace State history.”
Johnson, a 5-foot-11 point guard from Raleigh, N.C., will be just as valuable as Lewis in the backcourt. He quietly averaged 9.9 points last season while dishing out a team-high 88 assists in 30 starts.
“Marcus is not a flashy guy, but he has the ability to score. He has really elevated his game and worked hard to become a much better shooter and combo guard to give us solid minutes at a couple of different positions,” Meeks said. “Marcus has made major, major strides on and off the court with what he needs to do.”
Wallace State’s returning experience doesn’t end there. Sean Anthony, a 5-foot-10 sophomore guard from Charlotte, N.C., is back in the fold along with 6-foot-8 forward Quinterian McConico, a Woodlawn grad. Anthony was Wallace State’s top option off the bench last season, compiling 63 assists and 21 steals. Meanwhile, McConico averaged 4.3 points and 2.3 rebounds in nearly 10 minutes per game.
“Sean Anthony brings an intensity, fire and level of competition that is unmatched. Sean has accepted his role on this team and understands what he needs to do to help us win. He has settled into his role very well,” Meeks said. “I have been very encouraged by Quinterian this preseason. He has dedicated himself to getting in much better shape and has made it a goal to be a starter on this team. Quinterian is going to be an impact guy.”
After sitting last season out because of a season-ending knee injury, Cody Farley is healthy and ready to contribute in the paint for Wallace State. Farley is a Pinson Valley graduate.
“Even though he didn’t play last year, Cody was here the entire season and understands the expectations on and off the court. He has been great and is excited to be on the court. Cody has a chance to be one of the better big men in this league,” Meeks said. “Cody presents a unique matchup in that he can do a lot of things from the perimeter as well. He has a very high basketball IQ and will complement our perimeter guys well.”
Meeks has added a handful of sophomore transfers to create depth across the board. Marcus Burwell joins the team after playing at Hill College in Texas last season. Transfers joining the team also include X-keem Jones (Sheridan College in Wyoming), Dominique Taylor (Walters State in Tennessee) and Quayshad Williams (Flagler College in Florida).
Wallace State’s fortunes may also hinge on the maturation of a pair of freshmen from Georgia, both expected to start. Lee Moore, a 6-foot-3, 175-pound guard from Kennesaw, Ga., led his North Cobb (Ga.) High School team to the Class AAAAAA semis as senior, earning a first-team All-State selection. Darius Joell averaged 13.2 points as a senior at Collins Hill High in Suwanee, Ga.
“Lee Moore wants to be as good as he possibly can be. He brings everything to the table. He’s a high-level defender, a high-character kid and can really score. Lee has been very well-coached along the way and takes things very seriously,” Meeks said. “Darius is an unbelievable shooter who can really score the basketball. He has the unique ability to score in a variety of ways. He needs to continue to get more mature and stronger in order to adapt to the physicality of the college game. Both guys have shown why they were very successful high school players.”
Freshmen Kriston Beasley, Josh Farmer, Marcus Hayes and Marcus Lewis, a Thompson High grad, make up the remainder of the Wallace State roster.
Meeks once again has his team scheduled to play in a couple of highly competitive holiday tournaments. The Lions will travel to Panama City, Fla., for the Gulf Coast Thanksgiving Classic in late November and venture to Supply, N.C. for the Brunswick CC Holiday Classic in December.
Wallace State’s conference opener is Jan. 13 vs. Marion Military. Meeks expects the North Division to be as challenging as it was last season.
“Night in and night out it’s going to be very tough. Over the last 10 or 15 years, there’s a reason only one North Division team has advanced to the national tournament. We beat up on each other and are ready to go once the state tournament arrives,” Meeks said. “We’re looking forward to seeing how we measure up. We’re excited to be one of the most experienced teams in the conference.”
Wallace State’s men will also field its first ever junior varsity team this season. The team is primarily made up of area players and will play a limited eight-game schedule. The JV team will be led by first-year Wallace State assistant and veteran coach Tommy Suitts, who previously coached at Marion Military among many college and high school stops in his long career.
“We have multiple goals with our junior varsity team. We wanted to give a lot of local kids an opportunity to represent the college and their local high schools, and we also wanted to give an assistant coach his own team. It should help our recruiting and it gives us a chance to work the junior varsity guys against the varsity guys in practice,” Meeks said. “We see a lot of advantages by having a junior varsity team.”
Meeks surpassed the 100-win plateau as a head coach last season and has a 104-60 career record entering the season.