After his team allowed an average of 71.5 points per game through the first four losses of the season, Key West High coach Demetrius Roach turned to old college teammate Ryan Johnson, now the head coach of Cardinal Ritter College Prep in St. Louis, for some tips on a potential new defensive strategy.
“I said to him, ‘We literally cannot stay in front of anybody and the guys are blowing by my initial defenders and getting easy layups at the basket. What do we do?’ ” asked Roach. “He said, ‘You can do one of two things: the triangle approach and put your two best players on the opposing team’s best two players and leave the other three in a zone triangle or you can run a soft pack-line defense, which will clog up the middle and then you have to work on the posting out on the guys that are shooting 3s.”
With the height and wingspan of the Conchs’ players this season, Roach opted to go with the latter.
“I’ve got longer guys, like Kervins Nelson, Ethan Levering, Andy Desir, Camren Watson, Camron Perkins, we’ve got guys that have naturally long arms, so it just made sense,” said the coach.
Key West took an entire practice to set up the new-look strategy, according to coach DR, but he still felt their best defense was a zone.
“When we are facing a team that is forcing us out of our zone, now we can play this pack-line defense and still get ball pressure, without our guys running around the entire time in a man-to-man getting tired,” said Roach. “They can clog up the paint and close out.”
Key West executed it for the first time in a game against Palmer Trinity on Tuesday night, and the Conchs coach conveyed he felt it helped his squad keep the lead when they needed the ball pressure.
“They took to it and wanted to make the coaches proud and really executed,” said Roach. “We’ve had to put a little more emphasis on defense because we haven’t stopped anybody pretty much all year. I just felt like we have gotten off to a slow start with our defensive rotations.”
It still took time for Key West to find its form as Palmer took an early lead before the Conchs were able to open a 19-13 advantage by the end of the first quarter and extended it to double digits, 28-17, at halftime.
For the first time all year, according to the coach, the Conchs were able to maintain that advantage through the remainder of the contest, winning 59-53.
“We were ahead at least five to seven points the entire game, so our execution was really good and we finally got some of our guys who have been timid to shoot the ball to put some shots up.”
In fact, on Tuesday, the Conchs shot 47.6% from 3-point range.
“That was our best shooting performance output of the year,” said Roach.
The coach furthered that he believes the recent turnaround is a combination of the players starting to find confidence in their new roles and the continuation of the staff pushing the players into those positions.
“It just goes back to when I built the schedule and remembering how last year when we got beat up in the district tournament,” said Roach. “I made sure the teams we scheduled were in higher classifications this year, so when some of those schools started to rescheduled, we were stuck with bigger and tougher schools left in front of us. Of course, we played them but I think that just made us better.”
Now when Key West has a smaller school or compensatory squads lining up on the other side of the court, the Conchs coach expressed his team feels like they are “taking on their junior varsity.”
In fact, to get the players more involved, Roach explained to his team how exactly FHSAA the classification work and what it will take to make it deeper into the playoffs.
“I think they need to know what’s important so they better understand what they need to do to win the districts and how to advance out of the district in order to play a regional game,” said Roach. “Then for those that want to play at the next level, they better have an understanding of what it’s like at the college level.”
So far, the midseason adjustment has resulted in positive numbers as in their last four games, Key West is 3-1 overall, averaging 20 points less per game on defense at 55.25 per game in that span.
It has also paid dividends on offense, as the coach expressed his enthusiasm for senior Malik Hunter, who has now scored at least 15 points in two straight games, while senior classmate Kervins Nelson’s 17 on Tuesday marked the fourth straight he has scored at least 15.
“I’m so proud of that kid,” the Conchs coach said about Hunter. “He’s now finding himself in the spots where his muscle memory is back and now he’s making shots.
“The guys we saw this season who was going to be our scorers are now stepping into that role, and it has allowed our second-tier scorers to fall back into their role,” the coach added.
He also credited the progression of Jonhibek Mushinov, who collected 11 rebounds in the winning effort.
“I’ve been urging him to go and get every rebound,” said Roach. “I keep telling him, ‘Johni, you’re a walking double-double.”
In order to make up for the six games canceled in the first half of the season, Key West has added several games down the stretch, including taking on Archbishop McCarthy on Saturday, Jan. 16, at home, in hopes of playing a full schedule.
“I really also wanted to find more opportunities for our JV, they have been really suffering from the cancelations,” said Roach. “Every time a team cancels the JV is most likely getting that game back, so we had to hustle to make sure we got in more games.”
Despite the disarranged schedule, Roach expressed there is not a lack of motivation from the players, especially hoping they can complete the season now that they have a new defensive identity in place.
“At any moment it can all be taken away from us because somebody has tested positive and we are shut down for at least two weeks or maybe even the remainder of the season,” said the Conchs coach. “So every day we get to go out and play is a blessing and I’m reminding kids about that every day. We are just happy to be in the gym because there were months at a time we could not get in there.”