Mike Jones isn't going to forget last season's 14-16 losing record, just the second such mark in DeMatha Catholic's basketball program's proud history.
By DeMatha's famously lofty standards, the 2012-2013 season could be summed up as disastrous, which has left the Stags in a decidedly unique underdog position in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference they have dominated for decades.
“Nobody is talking about us, nobody is thinking about us,” Jones said. “Everything is about the four other teams in the league this year. We're kind of the forgotten child and, one, it's not something that we're used to and, two, it's not something that sits well with us. We don't like that.”
Though Jones would admit that the first six games of the season — all DeMatha wins, the closest being against defending 3A state champ Milford Mill (81-65) — were a soft opening, there is no denying that this is a much different team than the one that lost to Our Lady of Good Counsel just a year ago.
Youth, and the mistakes that come with it, plagued the Stags last year. Jones recognized it and remained patient while his freshmen and sophomores took their lumps and worked through growing pains. And though they are still unbelievably young — the vast majority of the minutes are played by non-seniors — “that youth has experience,” Jones said.
“Yeah, I mean, it definitely makes a difference,” center Joe Hampton said after he scored 12 points in the Milford Mill win. He struggled to find the right words when attempting to explain how just one year of Washington Catholic Athletic Conference exposure could possibly translate into the 180-degree turnaround DeMatha is moving towards, so he settled on gesturing towards the court where his Stags had just won.
“We're just trying to be the best team we can be right now,” he added. “We're just trying to be the best.”
Hampton's improvement has been the most noticeable and certainly the most impactful. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound big man has similar size to the since-graduated BeeJay Anya, who is now playing for North Carolina State, and an expanded set of skills that is developing ostensibly by the day. He has added a 3-point shot, a deft spin move in the post and a left-handed hook shot that rarely gets blocked. He dunks, runs the floor for alley-oops and cleans up rebounds — a shooting guard's best friend. The chemistry and friendship, according to Hampton and three of his teammates, is the fundamental difference for this season's team.
“I mean, last year nobody really got along that well,” said guard Terrell Allen, who picked up an offer from Siena last week. “But this year, we're all a group, we all like each other, we all talk to each other. We're not selfish, all that, and that's the difference.”
Over the summer, they would come in for afternoon workouts early, bags of fast-food in hand — to the shaking head of Jones — and hang out in the Morgan and Kathy Wootten Gymnasium while Victor Oladipo worked out in prepping for the National Basketball Association Draft (he was selected second by the Orlando Magic). They didn't need to be there that early — they just were.
“I didn't want to come back this year and have the same thing happen,” said Hampton, a sophomore who holds offers from Penn State and DePaul. “It's embarrassing. We can't have that, not at this program.”
Judging from the early, six-game sample thus far, it won't be happening any time soon, particularly with the amount of underclassmen still with more than two years left in the program. Along with Hampton and Allen, there's freshman D.J. Harvey, the first rookie to start since 1973 National High School Player of the Year Adrian Dantley and just the second in school history, as well as 3-point specialist Nate Darling and guard Reginald Gardner.
“Whooo,” Hampton said when pondering the potential for this team when his class is a group of polished seniors. “Man, I don't know — whooo. It's going to be crazy.”
“National champs,” added Harvey.
But before they can get too far ahead of themselves, there is still this season to consider, and a frighteningly talented Paul VI team standing in the way of reclaiming WCAC glory, not to mention St. John's, Bishop O'Connell and Gonzaga.
“We look tough where maybe we would have folded before,” Jones said. “We're moving in the right direction, I'll put it that way. We didn't know how we would react against a tough team and we were tough. We made a lot of mistakes, but if you're playing perfectly in December, something's not right. ... We can get a whole lot better.”