By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
By the end of last season, the Carthage boys basketball team was starting five underclassmen after the team’s lone senior starter had bowed out due to illness.
The Tigers finished with a 7-19 record (1-8 in the Central Ozark Conference) and head coach Nathan Morris said the team just wasn’t ready to win games maturity-wise.
“You could just tell towards the end of some of those games, we just weren’t ready to win those basketball games yet,” Morris said. “Towards the end of the year once that senior went down, and we had two others that helped us in spots, but after that it was predominantly underclassmen. Our top nine guys we plan to play this year all earned varsity minutes and really more than that they earned valuable minutes of big time basketball that hopefully will pay off for us this year.”
Junior Max Templeman returns at point guard after starting all 26 games last year and earning All-District honors. Listed at 5-foot-9, he averaged 14.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.1 steals per game. Senior Joel Pugh returns as a three-year starter after averaging 11.6 points, 4 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. The 6-footer, who also earned All-District honors, is on pace to break Carthage’s career records for three pointers made and free throw percentage.
Justin Ray, a 6-1 sophomore, started 25 games as a freshman and averaged 8.6 points and 2.4 assists. Caden Kabance, a 6-3 senior, is another returning starter who has played all five positions for the Tigers. He had a breakout football season as the team’s quarterback. He averaged 3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game as a junior in basketball.
And 6-3 junior Tyler Willis finished last season as the team’s starter at center.
That group is joined by senior Sylas Browning, a 6-0 forward who’s also played multiple positions, as well as juniors Clay Kinder and Britt Coy. Kinder is 6-1 and brings length and athleticism, while Coy is 6-0 and provides depth at both guard spots. Kinder and Coy were predominantly junior varsity players as sophomores but both were “really good” scorers at that level.
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“We had some good success in our summer games and you don’t try to lean on that too heavily but, more importantly, it was enjoyable,” Morris said. “The guys wanted to be in the gym every day. We wanted to be with them in the gym every day. You’ve seen it from coach Guidie this season with the football team, multiple times after games he hasn’t talked about their performance but their character. That’s the same crew we’re going to have with basketball.”
Carthage averaged seven made three pointers per game last year and Morris expects that number to be higher with a group of skilled players on the roster that can shoot it well. Morris said Templeman averaged 14 points per game in conference matchups and was able to score both inside and outside.
“He’s a very underrated point guard with his speed and ability to score,” Morris said. “I think he’ll prove that this year.”
And Pugh only needs 27 three pointers to break the school record.
“He honestly is one of the best kids I think I’ll ever get to coach,” Morris said. “He’s a good human being.”
Pugh and Ray are two of the better shooters in the area but Pugh wasn’t always able to showcase that last year. He was the team’s only returner with much experience and became the focal point of opposing defenses.
“Now that we’ve got a crew of guys around him that can all score and are skilled, Joel’s really going to have a breakout season this year,” Morris said.
The Tigers won’t have any freshmen playing at the varsity level this year but Morris noted that class possesses some size that the program hasn’t often had, including a 6-5 player, a 6-3 player and a 6-0 guard.
Carthage will join Mt. Vernon at Carl Junction for a jamboree on Nov. 19 before opening the regular season at Monett on Dec. 3. The Tigers will host the 75th Carthage Invitational in December with some new teams in the mix: Fort Smith (Arkansas) Southside and Webb City are joining the field, which also consists of Nevada, Ray-Pec, Joplin, West Plains and Leavenworth, Kansas.