By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
For the third time in four years the Nevada boys basketball team won at least 20 games last season.
The Tigers went 22-4 and improved to 84-21 over the last four seasons. Nevada started the year 9-0 and picked up another Carthage Invitational championship after winning all three games by an average of 18 points.
A one-point loss at East Newton in January was the team’s only blemish in Big 8 West play.
“We had some senior leadership with Dalton Gayman, who led us in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots,” head coach Shaun Gray said. “He was a tough matchup for teams and then we had a lot of balance around him. We shot the ball very well from the perimeter. Really we were a well-rounded team on both ends of the floor and it was a group of guys that played a lot of basketball together leading up to the season and kept it rolling. It was a fun group to coach.”
Gayman averaged 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists and signed with the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith to continue playing at the Division 2 level. He was a first team all-conference player and was named Big 8 West Player of the Year.
Nevada also lost another starter to graduation in guard Noah Cheaney, as well as four total letter winners.
Fortunately for the Tigers, there’s still plenty of returning experience this winter.
Seniors Logan Applegate, Logan McNeley and Lane McNeley will all be three-year starters.
Applegate will be a standout and is the team’s leading returning scorer after averaging 16.2 points, four rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.2 steals. He was a first-team Big 8 West selection.
“We feel like he’s one of the premier point guards in the state,” Gray said. “He’s got a couple Division 1 offers on the table right now and he’ll lead our team both in the locker room and on the floor.”
The 6-foot-2 Logan McNeley averaged seven points, three rebounds and 2.5 assists last season, while 6-2 twin brother Lane scored 6.5 points to go along with three rebounds and two assists. Both averaged better than a steal a game.
“All three of those guys can shoot the ball extremely well from the perimeter,” Gray said. “Applegate has tremendous range. He can shoot beyond the NBA three-point line with proficiency. They’re all three good at attacking the basket as well. Those three will set the tone for us and we’ll go as those three guys go.”
Gray also feels confident in the team’s complementary pieces, even if the team must replace a 6-foot-7 presence with some shorter players.
Evan Rea is a 5-11 junior point guard who saw action in 15 games last year. Owen Swearingen is a 6-1 junior perimeter player, a “D and three type guy,” Gray said. Kartman Highley is a 6-3 junior post player who should contribute on the boards and defensively. And Eli Cheaney, Noah’s younger brother, is a 6-1 junior who can play multiple positions and is a “high level athlete.”
Case Sanderson is a 6-3 sophomore who played in nine varsity games as a freshman and, like Cheaney, a “tremendous athlete” who had a strong football season.
Seven or eight others are also in the mix for playing time.
Gray said the team won’t be able to replace Gayman’s production with any one player, but hopes to replace him with overall production.
“It will be a team effort to replace the scoring and rebounding and interior defense,” he said. “It will have to be a mindset thing. It will be every guy stepping up and doing their part. The same thing offensively. Logan and Lane McNeley a year ago really didn’t look to do too much, they just let the game come to them and they averaged six or seven points a game knowing we wanted to run our offense through Dalton and Logan. With Dalton gone and all his shot attempts gone, those two guys will see an increase in their workload and I have no doubt they’ll increase their production to go along with the big production we anticipate from Applegate.”
The team’s four losses last season came by an average of just 7.5 points and Gray said the program has set a precedent the last four years that when the Tigers step on the floor they feel they can compete with anybody on the schedule. Expectations remain high this winter with Nevada eying strong showings in tournaments like the 74th Annual Carthage Invitational, Joplin’s Kaminski Classic and the Frontenac KANGI Tournament.
“Our goal is to make it to the championship game of those tournaments, give our self a chance to win those,” Gray said. “In district play unfortunately we’ve run into some of the best teams in the state with Grandview, back to back champs, but regardless of who we get put in a district with this year we’d like to give ourselves a chance to make it to the district championship game and give ourselves a chance to win that. Expectations are high, they’ve been high for recent years and we don’t expect that to change.”