The Belleville West Maroons, ranked No. 7 in the Class 4A state poll and No. 1 in the News-Democrat’s large-school poll, are averaging more than 76 points per game and have twice topped 80.
But coach Joe Muniz said his offense has yet to hit its stride.
In three games since playing in the Washington Tournament of Champions over Thanksgiving weekend, West’s scoring average has fallen 10 points.
“Offensively we’ve just been out of sync. I don’t know why, but we are,” Muniz said. “Part of it is we’re playing against good coaches and good teams that play a very control-style game.
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“I just told our kids, ‘You have to shoot it with confidence,’ and we’ve got to guard. The biggest thing is when we’re rebounding the ball or we’re getting turnovers, we’re able to score on the other end.”
That’s how the Maroons’ defeated Belleville East on Friday. Six-foot-7 junior forward EJ Liddell’s 12 blocks and some Lancers turnovers set the West transition game into motion. A 20-0 run that spanned the second and third quarters put West in command.
Muniz expects improvement as a young team grows more familiar with each other on the court.
Liddell leads the team with 21.4 points per game. He and junior Keith Randolph (9.3 points) shared some minutes on the floor last season, though Randolph’s time was sparing. Malachi Smith averages 15.1 points and has only seven games with the Maroons since transferring from East for his senior year.
Other key contributors are getting their first varsity action. Junior Lawrence Brazil III is averaging 11 points.
“Malachi, obviously, has played a lot of varsity basketball, EJ has played a lot of varsity basketball and Keith played a lot last year, but not crucial minutes,” Muniz said. “For everybody else, this is their first time.
“They’re still learning how to play. I have to remember that, too, as a coach. We’re getting better, but still have a long ways to go.”
The Maroons, who are 6-1 overall and 3-0 in the Southwestern Conference, face East St. Louis at home Friday. They play host to O’Fallon next Tuesday before a week-long holiday break and tip-off of the Centralia Tournament.
Kahoks up and coming
The Collinsville Kahoks will endure their share of growing pains this season, but it’s clear they are upwardly mobile in the SWC.
Collinsville, with a crop of promising underclassmen, is 4-4 after opening the season 4-0. It has dropped its three league games by a combined total of 11 points.
Ninth-year coach Darin Lee, despite the four-game losing streak, is upbeat about the direction the Kahoks are taking, and who can blame him?
Collinsville is athletic with players like 6-0 sophomore Ray’Sean Taylor, averaging 16.3 points, and 6-3 junior Marshall Harrison, averaging 14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds. Senior Braeden Lemp brings experience and chips in with about eight points per game, while 6-5 sophomores Keydrian Jones (8.4 points, 6.1 rebounds) and Aaron Molton have big bodies.
“We’ve got to commit to defense, which is what we did a few years ago when we had (Emondre) Rickman and (Sean) Davis,” Lee said. “We had a lot of success and won the regional. But you’ve got to go back to drilling — your zone drills and rebounding slots. We haven’t done a lot of that. We’re still ironing some things out with our team.
“It’s not like we’re getting beat by conference schools by 15 or 20. That’s encouraging for us, but then again, it’s frustrating for our kids.”
One of Collinsville’s losses was a 65-64 decision to East St. Louis. The Kahoks led by four with 1:37 to play, but lost on a 3-pointer by junior Traeveion Jones with four seconds left.
Lee, whose team was 10-20 last season and 9-20 in 2015-16, is targeting February and March for a turnaround. With continued improvement, the Kahoks could be a formidable opponent for any team by that point.
The Columbia Eagles lost for the fourth time in five games Saturday when they fell to visiting Belleville East 59-49.
Senior Jordan Holmes was limited to 15 points by the Lancers as East employed three different players to pressure him everywhere on the court.
The Eagles will be dangerous all season with Holmes, who is averaging 21.8 points and 7.2 rebounds, and 6-6 junior Jon Peterson, who had 20 points and nine rebounds against East and is averaging 12.4 points and 5.8 rebounds.
But Columbia will need another player or two to step up on the offensive end to lighten the load on Holmes and Peterson. No other player is averaging more than 4.2 points.
“When people are able to rotate athletes and good defenders on (Holmes), you’ve got to be able to trust your teammates a little bit,” Columbia coach Mark Sandstrom said. “We need to be able to pick up the pace. We’ll keep working and hopefully by the Christmas tournament, we can put a good stretch of games together.
“We definitely have potential, but right now, we’re not producing like I thought we would. We’ve just got to keep grinding away.”
The Eagles are shooting just 53 percent from the free-throw line (39-for-74), another impediment to getting better.
“Our free-throw shooting is horrendous,” Sandstrom said. “You could say that free-throw shooting has cost us three games this year already.”