The Belleville East Lancers 2017-18 season was one of highs and lows.
In April of last year, longtime assistant Jeff Creek became the sixth coach in Lancers history. His team entertained with fast-paced offense and pressure defense which, on many nights, caused problems for some of the top large school teams in southern Illinois.
Creek will lean hard on seniors Isaiah May and guard Kienen Waller as leaders of an athletic roster in 2018-19. East opened its season on Monday against DeSmet at the Centralia Thanksgiving Tournament.
“We opened there (Centralia) last year as well. It’s a good tournament for us because we’ll get to play four games in a week against good competition and teams that we wouldn’t normally see during the regular season,’’ Creek said last week. “Plus, DeSmet has a pair of 6-9 sophomores. It’s a good opener for us.’’
The Lancers graduated their top two offensive players from a year ago in Jaylen Lacey and Jordan Yates. But in the 6-4 180-pound May and 5-7 Waller, East returns good perimeter scorers. May also can post up a smaller player inside.
May averaged 10 points and finished the season with 53 3-point field goals, shooting just under 38 percent from beyond the arc. Waller scored just over seven points, shot 45 percent from beyond the arc and had 37 3-point field goals.
“They have both worked hard and we think they’ve improved over last year. Being seniors, they’re both more mature and stronger,’’ Creek said. “Isaiah has improved his ability to go to the basket and Kienen is strong and will be a leader in handling the basketball.”
The Lancers, who finished 12-17 last season, also return senior Malik Williams (2.5 ppg.), senior guard-forward Jared Adams (4.9 ppg.), senior Darren Sunkett and junior Zion Thomas.
The Lancers also have 6-5 senior Althoff transfer Khalifah Muhammad, who averaged 8.3 points and four rebounds for the Crusaders a year ago. Muhammad, the second tallest player on the Lancers roster behind 6-7 junior Kemendreon Cansler, is expected to play a big role at East this season.
Seniors Rakweon Ramsey and Cedric Sheard will add depth as will junior guard Andre Simmons and junior forward Eric Wade.
Another player who could make an impact this season is highly-touted freshman Braxton Stacker. Creek said the 6-3 Stacker will play considerable minutes from the outset of the season.
The Lancers will be tested early and often this season since they share the conference with defending Class 4A state champion Belleville West, East St. Louis Flyers, and much-improved teams in both Collinsville and Alton.
The Lancers will also need to play better in close games this season. Of its 17 losses a year ago, 10 were by 10 points or less.
“I like our basketball team. This being my second year as head coach I’m more comfortable and I think the kids know what we expect from them better. With our athletes and quickness, I think we’ll create some matchup problems for some teams,’’’ Creek said. “Rebouding is a concern right now, plus we need to play better in close games.
“We need to be able to close out teams when we get the chance. We need to learn how to finish.’’