Despite an offseason plagued by injuries and transfers, Science Hill coach Ken Cutlip has begun 2011-12 with guarded optimism.
Employing lineups often comprised of five guards, the Hilltoppers (1-0, 7-0) have come out of the gates firing accurately from all directions while shooting down the likes of Bearden, Cleveland and Bradley Central.
It’s an impressive start for a team that lost senior posts Hunter LeVeau and Buddy Gosey to injuries in the offseason after starters Shannon Hale and Jaylen Allen transferred to Christ School (Arden, N.C.). The attrition created four frontcourt vacancies.
But while Science Hill isn’t big, the Hilltoppers are creating big matchup problems with their ball-handling, quickness and perimeter shooting.
“We’ve come out of the gates and played really well as a team,” Cutlip said Thursday afternoon. “I don’t know if they’ve got a chip on their shoulder. I mean, obviously, they know the expectation that comes with this program. We’ve got a group of kids that’s probably been second fiddle to some other kids throughout their career, and they’re just having a chance to step up and play, and they’re making the most of it.”
The Hilltoppers’ experienced players are leading the way. Junior C.J. Good has multiple scoring games in the 20s, and the 5-foot-11 combo guard is shooting 56 percent from the field and 44 percent from the 3-point range.
Senior guard Zach Howard, who missed nearly all of preseason practice with an ankle injury, made four 3-pointers in a 20-point performance against Volunteer in the Hilltoppers’ 70-35 Big Eight Conference-opening victory on Tuesday. Howard is shooting 56 percent from behind the arc and 54 percent from the field. Good and Howard have been able to handle the ball throughout their careers, but Cutlip foresees them making more trips to the foul line this season.
“When C.J. was a freshman he was primarily a catch-and-shoot guy, and so was Zach,” Cutlip said. “Now, those guys, if somebody closes on them, they both can put it on the floor.”
Junior point guard Will Adams, an agile penetrator, can get to the line, too. Adams, essentially fresh out of football, made 12 of 13 free throws en route to a team-high 19 points in a 78-68 defeat of Bearden last week in Kingsport.
Reed Hayes has also transitioned smoothly from football. He scored 23 points in a 74-71 win against Cleveland on Friday in Chattanooga. Hayes leads the team in rebounding (4.9 per game) – he’s one of five ’Toppers averaging at least four rebounds – and he’s third in 3-pointers (15) behind Good (21) and Howard (18) thanks to 44-percent shooting.
“Reed’s one of our better athletes,” Cutlip said. “We’ve always wanted him to do more, because he’s got a lot more ability than just being a scorer. He’s actually starting to assert himself.”
Tre’vonn Fields has a lot of tools. The 6-foot-4 sophomore’s shooting 52 percent from the field. Consistency would make him an all-conference caliber player.
“He can be very impressive,” Cutlip said. “He has the ability to shoot it, to put it on the floor, to pass it. He can do anything when he sets his mind to it.”
Another sophomore, 6-foot-4 Daniel Sweeney, has also bolstered the frontcourt. And Cutlip has gotten key spot duty from 6-foot-3, 290-pound Tyler Miles and fellow football player Todd Page-Gilmore, each of whom he said hasn’t played in three years.
Cutlip hopes to get the versatile 6-foot-5 LeVeau back in January. He’s been bothered by a hamstring since spring, which led to a meniscus tear being discovered in May and operated on in June. But the hamstring has remained a burden, and Cutlip said a herniated disc in LeVeau’s back was discovered Thursday.
“Hopefully, they’ve identified the problem and it’s something that’s gonna be correctable,” Cutlip said. “He’s tried to play through it, but he just can’t go. It’s been very frustrating for him, and for all of us to see him struggle like he has. You just hate to see a kid miss out when it’s his senior year. “There were games that he was the best player we had last year, and that’s not to slight any of our kids. Hunter has the ability to shoot it and pass it and handle it, has a great nose for the basketball. … I would feel fortunate if I got him back by January. I should have more of an idea tomorrow.”
Gosey, who had a promising summer before suffering a meniscus injury three weeks before the season, was expected to be an invaluable “glue guy.” Cutlip sees his influence in the number of players taking charges.
Of course, small, quick lineups will have to take more charges. Good and Adams have had to guard post players in spots.
“Most of the time we really have five guards on the floor,” Cutlip said. “But we’ve been able to exploit the mismatches on the offensive end. When you’re shooting well it can hide a lot of mistakes sometimes.
“When you’ve got several kids that can dribble, pass and shoot, you’re pretty versatile. So far we’ve been able to cover up our lack of size. And there have been so many times we’ve had good shots turned down to pass to somebody for a great shot. … So far, this has probably been the funnest group I’ve ever had a chance to coach.”
The Hilltoppers visit Sullivan South (3-3) tonight.