Defending 5A hoops champ Lee boys to rely on young roster

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Greg Brown celebrated his 20th year as boys’ basketball head coach at Lee-Huntsville last season with a Class 5A state championship. Headed into the opening day of Alabama High School Athletic Association basketball practice on Monday, he still feels a twinge of excitement.

“I’m not quite as excited as I was last year when we had that great team,” he said with a chuckle, “but you could say I’m excited about this young group.”

A bit of apprehension about the upcoming season is understandable. The heart of the roster that finished 17-1 with a 47-29 rout of then-No. 1 Ramsay in the state title game is mostly gone.

Class 5A Player of the Year – and coach’s son – Kaleb Brown has joined his older brother, Kobe, on the Missouri basketball team. State tournament Most Valuable Player and third-team All-State pick Taye Fields is now a freshman at Missouri Western.

Also graduated are state title game starters Ryan Anderson and Che Ben and contributors Henry Lee and Azaad Ben.

“We had players who could play almost every position on the court and we used that to our advantage,” Brown said. “I have had more talented teams, but we had that special leadership last year. They were a close-knit team and we did things the right way.

“I have told this year’s team that last year was last year and now we have to pave our own way. It told them that team last year was special in its own way, now’s the time to find their own identity. That’s not going to be easy to do. It’s going to be a struggle with my two seniors and a lot of sophomores. We’ll be rebuilding, but I think we will try to find a way to make some kind of run.”

AHSAA Championship Basketball

Lee-Huntsville coach Greg Brown directs his team against Ramsay during the AHSAA Class 5A championship game at Bill Harris Arena in Birmingham, Ala., Thursday, March, 4, 2021. (Dennis Victory | preps@al.com)

Brown and the Generals have made plenty of runs. Brown’s 2010 Lee squad won a state championship and the Generals finished second in 2001, 2011, 2012 and 2015 and fell in the state semifinals in 2003.

The foundation of the Generals’ rebuilding job will be senior guards Jacari Lane and Dexter Smith, returning starters from a year ago.

“Jacari, in my opinion, is one of the best guards in the state,” Brown said of the 6-foot-2 Lane. “He’s one of the most talented point guards I’ve ever had. He’ very explosive and is a big-time defender. It will be fun to watch him this year, he does some of everything.

“Dexter is a high-energy kid. He’s a combo guard, a big-time scorer and a big-time leader. He’s the leader of this squad. He’s a perfect role model for these kids.

“Jacari and Dexter are my leaders,” the coach said. “I’m depending on them to keep us from being embarrassed.”

One of the sophomores that Brown expects to make some noise is 5-10 guard Namon Hobson. “Namon will be big for me,” he said. “He’s a promising guard who can play other positions. He’s very skilled and has a high IQ for the game. I’m depending on him to make a difference.

“James Vassar is a big-time football player (on the defensive line). I’m sure he’s going to sign a football scholarship somewhere. He’s one of the most aggressive guys we have, night-in, night-out. He’s a physical guy who is a really good rebounder. He’s one of our bigger guys (at 6-4, 283).

“Ashton Langford is a senior forward and he’s a big-time shooter for us. He can shoot from the perimeter and make plays for us,” Brown said. “Antony Matthews came in at the end of last year, coming off an injury, but he can score the ball on different levels. I’m depending on him to help us.”

Brown once again expects his team to be road warriors after a COVID-19 plagued season that shortened the Generals’ regular season to just 13 games. This year’s schedule includes tournaments in Las Vegas (Dec. 16-21), New Orleans (Jan. 5-9) and another yet to be determined in Florida later in January.

The coach said having two state titles and two sons on scholarship at Missouri are special achievements, but “my biggest accomplishment out of all of this is we’ve put 72 kids in college on basketball scholarships. That’s what I call success, not so much championships, but getting kids to further their educations. That’s wonderful.

“I’m big on academics, too. All our teachers and the administration will tell you that,” Brown said. “All of our kids have qualified academically. I have one son who had a 3.8 (grade point average) and one with a 3.6, so I’m big on that.”

Brown said his son, 6-7 forward Kobe, has been told that he was getting some attention at Mizzou from the pros. “They told him he may have a chance at the NBA,” Brown said. “He said, ‘Yeah, but I want to own a Fortune 500 company.’

“I never want a player to think that basketball is all they have. When they don’t make it or get that one injury that ends a career, some get depressed and some ever suicidal. It’s bad for a kid to think that’s all they had.

“A lot of kids who are not on the right track play basketball and a lot of coaches let them anyway. I’d rather lose than play a bunch of knuckleheads who don’t want to move on.”

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