• Val T.

Pioneer boys basketball preview: Panthers seek more offense in McKaig’s second season

BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS

Sports Editor, RTC

The Pioneer boys basketball team allowed only 44.3 points per game last season.

That was the fewest points they have allowed in a season in eight years.

However, it only equated to a 9-12 record, which broke their streak of six consecutive winning seasons.

That’s because Pioneer’s 40.8 scoring average was their lowest in seven years. Ezra Lewellen and Hunter Klepinger, last year’s top two scorers, both graduated. So did Addai Lewellen.

Given the graduation losses, it might only give a greater sense of urgency to improving the offense as coach Darren McKaig begins his second season.

“We are doing ballhandling and pressure ballhandling and making sure we don’t have as many turnovers as we had in a few games last year,” McKaig said. “And then we are shooting a ton – shooting on the move, trying to shoot at game speed, trying to shoot with defense running out at us. … Our percentages can’t go anywhere but up based on last year.”

Sophomore guard Drew McKaig is the team’s leading returning scorer, and coach McKaig said that he became acclimated to the speed of the varsity game at about the halfway point last season.

Brock Robinson, a 5-7 senior whose junior season got off to a late start as he recovered from a shoulder injury suffered while playing football in November 2020, is back at point guard. McKaig said Robinson is the team’s “best defensive stopper.”

“We’ll rely on him heavily,” coach McKaig said. “He will play almost the whole game as long as he’s healthy. … He’s just a hard-nosed kid. I think his shooting is going to be better this year. He’s always been a pretty good ballhandler and a quick kid who can get some separation from the defense. I coached him in JV also, and he was just a one-man press break. He was able to get open, and he was able to beat traps and one-on-one defenders. It’s been real nice to have him all these years.”

Other seniors include guards Gavin Clem and Christian Scott and forwards Oscar Solano and Jacob Zeigler.

Clem has improved his shooting and can even score with his back to the basket despite his 5-9 stature, according to coach McKaig. Zeigler is the team’s tallest player at 6-3. The 6-2 Solano plays at “full power,” coach McKaig said.

“Christian Scott has been dunking the ball two-handed after practice,” coach McKaig said. “We haven’t had anybody who can dunk the ball, period, in the last five or six years. So his athleticism has taken a step forwards.”

The two juniors are Eli Miller and Caleb Sweet. Miller is a voluminous rebounder, according to McKaig.

“He’s just a steady player,” coach McKaig said of Sweet. “Just another year older. He sees the game better. When he’s in the middle of our offense or playing in the middle of our zone offense, he just has this calmness about him. It’s just a good influence on the other guys. He’ll shoot better this year. He’s just a really solid player.”

Defensively, Pioneer hung its hat on a zone defense, which slowed down its opponents. Four of their first five opponents scored 50 or more points, but only one of their last 16 opponents did the same.

McKaig said he doesn’t envision going away from the zone or changing the team’s style of play.

“I really believe the 2-3 zone, even at the varsity level, can give teams a lot of trouble,” coach McKaig said. “You don’t usually put in a lot of plays against the zone, not as many as you do against man-to-man. We drill it. We do breakdown drills on it. We have coverages for certain situations. We really do emphasize it a lot. … I still think it’s a great option for us.”

McKaig’s first season occurred during unusual circumstances. The football team, with which Pioneer shares multiple members, made it to semistate. Also, the pandemic limited offseason gym time and wiped out the summer season of 2020.

This year, football season ended on the Friday before the start of basketball practice.

“You take a little time off, and you look back, and maybe you just see things a little differently and a little more clearly with every year of experience,” McKaig said when asked about the difference between being a first-year coach and a second-year coach. “Even in our sectional games last year, when we thought we maybe had a good game plan or figured it out, you look back, and I think you just see some other adjustments you can make going into this year.

“And just a little more calm with the players too. You already know the guys from one year, so you can come back in and build off of the relationship you already have with them last year.”

Pioneer Panthers schedule

Nov. 30 – vs. Logansport, 7:30 p.m. (Cass County Invitational semifinal)

Dec. 4 – Cass County Invitational at Logansport, TBD

Dec. 10 – at Triton, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 11 – vs. North Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 17 – vs. LaVille, 8 p.m.

Dec. 18 – at Argos, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 21 – at Manchester, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 28 – at LaCrosse, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 7 – vs. Frontier, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 8 – at Faith Christian, 7 p.m.

Jan. 14 – at Lewis Cass, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 15 – vs. Carroll (Flora), 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 21 – vs. West Central, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 28 – at Caston, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 29 – vs. Rossville, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 3 – at North Judson, 8 p.m.

Feb. 5 – vs. Indiana Deaf, 12:30 p.m.

Feb. 8 – vs. Knox, 8 p.m.

Feb. 11 – at Culver, 7 p.m.

Feb. 18 – vs. Winamac, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 19 – vs. North White, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 25 – vs. Tri-County, 7:30 p.m.

March 1-5 – Class 1A, Sectional 52 at Tri-County


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