Despite virus, Chargers set for ’20-21 hoops season

By Maurice Patton

Winston Neal couldn’t call the coronavirus pandemic a positive, but the veteran Columbia State men’s basketball coach couldn’t deny that his roster for the 2020-21 season is in place quicker than any of his previous five.

“It’s extraordinarily early,” Neal said earlier this week as he confirmed the signing of eight freshmen and three more commitments, along with six returnees from the Charger squad that finished 23-10 and won the TCCAA tournament championship to claim a berth in the national tourney that was ultimately canceled because of the COVID-19 virus.

“Most junior colleges don’t finalize their (recruiting) classes until July. For us, I’ve taken the approach, that (NCAA Division I) mentality of get it done sooner rather than later. We’ve tried to be done in May (previously).”

The freshman class will span four different states, spearheaded by Cleevas Craig, a 6-9, 240-pound post from Ft. Wayne, Ind., and a pair of talented perimeter players from the Bluegrass State. Two other signees are from the north Alabama area, along with three in-state recruits.

“That’s a (C-State assistant) Quan Dudley special right there,” Neal said regarding the “super-athletic” Craig. “He’s the one that recruited him. The young man is extraordinarily talented, especially in the post.”

Craig will pair in the paint with Malique Oates – who the Chargers saw up close last season, as he played for Tennessee Valley Prep out of Huntsville.

“He’s the one we had trouble scoring against,” Neal said. “He’s got some size. He’s needs to get in better shape, but he’s working on that.”

Also from Alabama is Xavier Griffith, who played at East Limestone. Both he and West Creek’s Kamarie Coffey are expected to transition out of the paint.

“(Griffith) is about 6-6, 230,” Neal said. “He primarily played the ‘4’, but we’re going to play him at the wing because he shoots the ball really well. Kamarie’s a 6-6 shooter. He primarily played the ‘4’, but he’s a wing – a shooting guard, small forward. We’re just trying to get as big and strong and long and athletic as possible.”

Slated for perimeter play as well are Trevon Harris, from Elizabethtown, Ky., and Chris McKnight, who played at Arlington, just outside of Memphis. McKnight was coached by Mo Miller, who – like Neal – played at Georgia Tech under former Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt.

“Trevon’s a 6-4 combo wing,” Neal said. “We really like his ability to rebound, defend and create. (Arlington) runs very similar defensive schemes to what we do, so I’m really looking forward to (McKnight) picking up things very quickly because he’s already done them. He’s a 6-4 shooter/slasher with great size, great skill level, so we’re really excited about both our in-state wings with (McKnight and Coffey).

“Xavier got recruited by some D-Is, Kamarie got recruited by some D-Is, Chris did, Tre did, so we really feel like those guys are going to be able to play D-I sooner rather than later. They have the length, the athleticism, the size we’re looking for.”

Both point guard signees – Amirion Joyce, from Paris, Ky., and Tray Swift, from Dyer County – also drew Division I recruiting interest, Neal said.

“(Joyce) was the top available point guard in Kentucky,” the coach said. “We’re very excited about him. He’s a 6-1, 6-2, athletic point guard. If he can develop his jump shot, he’s going to be playing D-I. He’s got the size, the athleticism. And Tray’s a scoring, shooting point guard.”

With the departures of two-year starters Gene Holmes and Jayden Lockett at the point and wing, Neal and assistants Dudley and Larry Jones were particularly focused on reinforcing those positions.

“Those were massive voids we need to fill,” Neal said. “We’re going to be young at those positions, but I do think we’re going to be extremely talented.”

With commitments also from Summit’s Tre Carlton, Centennial’s Isaiah Poore and Clarksville Northeast’s Ty Jackson, the sizeable Charger freshman class will mesh with returners R.J. Abernathy, Jamari Bostic, Chris Nix, Darius Rozier, Toni Sparkman and Tarre’q Williams. Bostic and Nix each earned all-conference honors as freshmen.

While Neal wouldn’t say the pandemic helped C-State’s recruiting efforts, the situation certainly didn’t hamper them.

“We’re very excited about him. He’s a 6-1, 6-2, athletic point guard. If he can develop his jump shot, he’s going to be playing D-I. He’s got the size, the athleticism. And Tray’s a scoring, shooting point guard.”

CSCC Head Coach Winston Neal on incoming freshman Amirion Joyce

“I give Quan a lot of credit on this,” he said. “Quan has done an amazing job of getting on guys early. We’ve been on these guys for a very, very long time. We had relationships built before the pandemic hit. Quan was on Cleevas for six months before he committed. Tre (Harris) came to a regular-season game. Kamarie came to a regular-season game. We’ve had guys here, on campus. They’d seen us, we had relationships with them, they knew us really well, so when the pandemic hit, it canceled out a bunch of visits, but that’s already, because we had built those relationships.

“We’ve made really good inroads into north Alabama, really good inroads into Kentucky, and we want to keep that up. I think we’ve done a really good job recruiting Tennessee of late, and we want to keep that up. There’s still four or five kids out of Nashville I’d love to sign, but we’re just not going to be able to.”

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