Team Mississippi is on a mission this week, and five Meridian youth basketball players will look to help the squad to a major showing north of Atlanta.
The fourth-annual U.S. Basketball Games takes place at the Lakepoint Sports Complex in Cartersville, Ga., Saturday and Sunday and will host more than 1,000 players from across the country, many of whom have Division I potential. Collinsville resident Neil Henry returns after coaching the team last summer, and with him are five players from East Mississippi: Demonte Robinson, Jederion Lewis, Parker Henry, Demarcus Powe and Garrison Sharpe.
The team, which will compete in the rising sophomores division, also has two players from Starkville, one from Tupelo and five from Jackson. Most of the roster is made up of guards, which Neil Henry said should help with the style of play he wants to run.
“I feel great,” Henry said. “We’re loaded with guard play, which carries a lot of weight, because we want to play high-pressure defense, and we’ll be able to sub guys without a drop in quality.”
Sharpe said he’s excited about having so many guards on one team.
“We can play at a faster pace and shoot more shots than the other team,” Sharpe explained. “It also gives us a chance to guard better on the perimeter.”
High-pressure defense might be a reflection of attitude as much as it is strategy, Henry added.
“We’re not going to have fun, we’re going to win this thing,” Henry said. “It’s a business trip, and they know that. We’ll have fun (while we’re there), but when we hit the courts, we’re not there to make friends. We can have fun later.”
The team is hoping for better success than it saw a year ago at the same tournament, which plays into Henry’s attitude — and it’s an attitude that’s trickled down to the players.
“Last year, we didn’t do as well as we thought we would,” said Powe, who will attend Meridian this coming school year. “We have a chip on our shoulders, and it motivates us a lot. … I approach it the same way (Henry) does: We want to go out there and compete and try to win.”
The mindset is simple, Sharpe said: just win.
“Do whatever it takes to win, because it’s only one tournament,” Sharpe said.
Henry said the team is made up of high-character, highly skilled players who have created positive momentum from their recent play.
“They’ve been playing all summer and have had a lot of success,” Henry said. “All of them have been playing against high-level AAU competition, and some of them have even gone on the Nike circuit, which is a whole other level of size, quickness and skill set — and they’ve had some success in that circuit.”
Sharpe, who attends University Charter School in Livingston, Ala., said he’s enjoyed the camaraderie the group brings, which has allowed them to jell as a team.
“I’ve played with most of them before,” Sharpe said. “There are a few newer faces, but everyone seems pretty friendly.”
Playing on the AAU circuit has allowed the players to attend events where coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl and Mississippi State’s Ben Howland have been in attendance. They’ve also seen the sons of Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James play.
“It’s exposure they normally wouldn’t get without being on the circuit,” Henry said.