HANCEVILLE – A new chapter in Wallace State men’s basketball history is set to unfold Friday as the Lions open the season behind new head coach John Meeks at Volunteer State in Gallatin, Tenn.
Much has changed since the program reached unchartered territory last season by winning its first state championship, first National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region 22 title and finishing fifth in the NJCAA Division I National Tournament.
In fact, not a coach or player remains from the record-breaking season.
Allen Sharpe, who led the Lions to a 32-5 record last year and to a 136-30 mark in five seasons, departed to be the head coach of the University of Arkansas at Monticello in May.
Meeks, who guided Louisburg (N.C.) College to the NJCAA Division II Tournament last season, was hired as Wallace State’s coach in July. In his final season with the Hurricanes, the 27-year-old Meeks finished 29-7, won the NJCAA Region X Tournament and was named the 2010 District 15 Coach of the Year.
Less than four months after he was hired, Meeks will make his Wallace State debut on the road.
“There are strong program expectations here. As an institution, we want to duplicate the success that was experienced last year in the quickest way possible. As a coach, I have high expectations,” said Meeks, whose team features players from nine different states. “It’s good for expectations to be high. Our kids expect to win, but you will see us play better basketball in January and February than you do in November or December. There are going to be some growing pains along the way.”
Meeks has assembled a roster that features 10 freshmen, including a couple of transfers who should log considerable minutes.
“We are very, very young, which is unlike many Wallace State basketball teams from past remembrance. Our guys are going to have to be patient and trust in the system. We won’t start out easy. We have some tough, tough games to start out with, but that will test our maturity. We signed about 13 guys in a span of about three weeks. To have done that, I feel the roster is as complete as it could have been,” said Meeks, who grew up an avid North Carolina basketball fan. “The positive thing is we’ve already seen some strides in these guys. Hopefully, they’ll continue to work to get to where we need to be.”
Wallace State has a pair of Alabama natives, Dora High’s Jo-Jo Walls and Austin’s Jay Watkins, on this season’s roster.
Walls, a 6-foot-6 freshman guard, has battled a leg injury during the preseason, but should contribute once he returns to game shape in a couple of weeks.
“Jo-Jo is an unbelievable kid. He was really starting to show signs of how good he was going to be and then he got injured. Hopefully, that won’t be too much of a setback,” Meeks said. “Late in the season, I can see Jo-Jo being a go-to-guy for us. He can do a lot of different things. He can be a role player, a pass-first player or a scorer. He has a lot of ability. He has a great basketball IQ.”
Watkins joins the Lions after a stellar career at Austin.
“Jay Watkins is probably one of the more active kids I’ve ever coached. He has a motor that doesn’t stop. For Jay, it’s going to be refining a position and determining exactly where he should play,” Meeks said. “I think he’s going to play a lot inside for us. He can do some good things down low. He’s very strong, does a great job rebounding and is great on ball press. He’ll make some contributions inside for us this year.”
Early on, Meeks is banking on sophomore guard Maurice Phelps to bear a significant offensive and leadership role. Phelps accompanied Meeks to Wallace State from Louisburg College along with guard Martell Buie.
Phelps played in the national tournament for Meeks last season. Buie was a Louisburg signee before the move to Hanceville, is a year removed from playing at Tennessee State and is the half brother of former Auburn star Marquis Daniels, who is now a reserve player for the Boston Celtics.
“Maurice was one of my better players at Louisburg last year and did a very good job. He’s going to be counted upon to carry a big scoring load and be accountable from a leadership standpoint because he knows expectations,” Meeks said. “Martell played at a very high level in high school, comes from a great basketball pedigree and knows what to expect on the court.”
Coastal Carolina transfer Tre Lee and 6-foot-8 sophomore center Luke Joseph are also expected to play significant roles this season.
Wallace State makes its home debut on Saturday, Nov. 13 at 3 p.m. vs. West Georgia Technical College and plays seven home games before January.
The conference home opener is Jan. 10 vs. Northwest Shoals.
“Our guys are excited about starting. Our style of play is going to be much different from the Allen Sharpe days. We’re very up-tempo offensively and play a lot of guys, anywhere from 12 to 13 guys,” Meeks said. “We press and trap in the full court after every made basket and try to set the tone on the defensive end. We try to force our opponent to make ill-advised shots and get them out of their flow.”
Off the court, Meeks has been impressed with the support he has already received from local businesses and fans.
“Other than working with this team, I’ve spent a lot of time getting out in the community. I’ve tried to get local restaurants and hotels involved with our team and just get them to understand the impact we can have on each other,” Meeks said. “It’s not asking for anything except they come to a couple of games. In the future, I hope those people will jump on board with even more support.”
Andrew Brown is Meeks’ assistant coach.