BY CHAD DARE firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — DANVILLE — There is no substitute for experience.
Danville boys basketball coach Ted Houpt knows this all too well as he begins his second season with the Vikings.
"I know what's coming this year,'' he said. "I didn't know what was coming last year. All the basketball years in your life can't prepare you for actually being there and experiencing it.''
That combination of a first-year coach, a team with limited varsity experience and a very difficult schedule resulted in a 5-21 season for Danville High.
"It was a bad year, but it was also a good year for our team,'' said Danville senior Denzel Smith, the Commercial-News Player of the Year last season. "It showed us what we did wrong, and the things we needed to get corrected.
"We understand that we have to grind harder to get wins.''
Smith, who averaged 15.6 points and 7.0 rebounds a game, is one of three returning starters this season for the Vikings, joining senior guard Kylen Butler and senior forward Jarhed Watson.
"Denzel Smith is one of the best players in the state,'' Houpt said. "He has shown that he has matured a great deal and he wants to be a leader. He is showing that leadership quality in practice as he is winning sprints. That will make a big difference. When you have your best player on board and outworking everyone, it makes it easier to coach.
"Kylen Butler is one of the most dedicated athletes that I've seen in years. He did a lot of good things a year ago and this year he will run the offense. He knows offense, front and back. He is very dependable. Jarhed Watson has great talent, and he played well in bursts for us a year ago. I think with consistent minutes, this year, he can surprise people.''
And, now will that added experience translate into more victories?
"If you want me to promise more wins, I can't do that,'' Houpt said. "There are no guarantees. I thought our kids gave a good effort last year. I thought the coaches gave a good effort. But, you just can't replace experience. I will be more prepared, but that doesn't guarantee a better record.
"As a team, we're going to be prepared. We don't have a lot of experience, but the experience that we do have will make a big different. We believe that things will be better.''
In addition to three returning starters, the Vikings also return senior guards Victory Askew and Colin Bailey. According to Houpt, Askew will be one of the best defenders in the Big 12 Conference and Bailey gives Danville an outside shooting threat.
"I think we are going to have better chemistry this year,'' said Watson. "Everyone has a pretty defined role and we know what those roles are coming into the season.''
Watson admits that coach Houpt has taken a more aggressive approach this year and he is putting more responsibility onto the players' shoulders this season.
"I learned a lot last year about the things that worked, and more importantly, the things that didn't work,'' he said. "We had a great summer, that was different. We knew how to use the summer. We played very successfully in summer leagues and tournaments. We are coming in way ahead of where we were last year.''
Danville has also made subtle changes in its offensive and defensive philosophies.
"I think our defense is going to be very different this year,'' Watson said. "We are going to play a more aggressive style of defense.
"Hopefully, that opens up some opportunities for our offense.''
A year ago, the Vikings were a team that struggled at times on offense because of poor shooting.
"We have worked hard over the summer to improve our shooting,'' said Smith, one of the best shooters on the team. "But, we also know that we have to keep working on it every day.
"We want to be able to go up and down the court, but we need our defense to make stops so that we can do that.''
One thing that Houpt won't have this season is an overabundance of depth. A year ago, he had 11 different players that started at least one game for the Vikings and this season, his current roster has just 12 players.
"Sometimes having that many players is not good,'' Houpt said. "The high school game is short, with 8-minute quarters, so there isn't a lot of time to get into a rhythm. There were times last year that I was substituting just to make sure I was getting guys into games.
"This year, we are not that deep, and I think it will help us get into a better flow during the games.''
Danville has made one small change in its schedule this season. Instead of opening with Big 12 Conference rival Champaign Centennial in the Eaton Corporation Lincoln Holiday Tournament on Monday, the Vikings will face Chicago Harlan, who went 13-16 and won a Class 4A regional, in a 6:30 p.m. contest on Monday.
The Chargers, featuring Mike Finke, who signed earlier this month to play next season at Illinois, will play the Vikings on Wednesday in a 6 p.m. contest at Danville High School as part of the Holiday Tournament. Danville will then conclude the Eaton Holiday Tournament with games against Cahokia on Friday, followed by contest against Lincoln on Saturday afternoon and Morton on Saturday night.
"We're hungry to make up for last year,'' Smith said. "Our goal is to finish this year with a winning record and playing our best basketball at the end of the season.''