The past two seasons the Gainesville boys basketball team was certainly one of the elite groups in all of Georgia behind players like Kajuan Hale, KJ Buffen, Bailey Minor, and the Rosser twins among a group of seven seniors. They played for one state title and lost to state champion Langston Hughes each of the past two seasons.
But that group has moved on to bigger things while coach Benjie Wood left to take over Hall County's newest school in Cherokee Bluff. The 2018-19 team, now coached by long-time assistant Chuck Graham, featured just two returning starters in Brent Kelly and Rafael Rubel and started slow dropping four of their first five games as they tried to find their own identity.
But a pair of wins in the Carrollton Holiday tournament set the stage for a gritty Lanierland Tournament title run, including a nail-biting 60-59 win over Lakeview Academy. The Red Elephants (10-7, 2-0 Region 8-6A) now seem to have things rolling reeling off six straight wins, including another heart-stopper over Dacula on Saturday night, getting a game-winning layup by Julio Santana with just 0.5 seconds left.
AccessWDUN's Jeff Hart caught up with Graham this week to discuss how his young team is coming along as the Red Elephants get into the meat of their Region 8-6A schedule...
QUESTION: This is your first head coaching position. How different is it for you after being a long-time assistant, especially at a program like Gainesville where expectations are always high?
ANSWER: It is a major difference. As an assistant my main focus was on the X and O's of basketball and basketball only; now being in charge of every aspect of the program is a balancing act but I feel like I’m well prepared and I'm grateful for the opportunity. I believe my time as an assistant coach here at Gainesville has equipped me for the head coaching position. I knew the expectations going in so I was prepared.
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you and this team coming into this season?
A: The biggest challenge was finding our identity as a team and playing as one unit. We didn't have much varsity experience coming into this season so developing our roles was a huge focus for us. This group has a tremendous opportunity to determine the culture and shape the future of our program. We have to remind ourselves as coaches and players to stay present and we are adopting that mindset as a program.
Q: This is a much different looking team from the last few seasons. Very guard-oriented behind guys like Rafael Rubel, Brent Kelly, and Maurice Hector. How has that changed your approach, especially on offense, so far this season?
A: Well, we have to play to our strengths. For most of the season, we have started five guards, but we have talented young men on our roster and the key is to have that talent play as one. We have the roster that allows us to be flexible. We have swing players like Walt Dixon and Rassie Littlejohn, we can go small with the returning guards and the addition of junior Santana and Dee Buffington, or we can run a couple of football lineman out there. Makius Scott and Jordan Williams add a different element inside that Gainesville hasn't seen in a few years.
Q: Your team, especially of late, is showing a penchant for winning the close games. What has been the difference since some close early-season losses?
A: We have played well over the past couple of weeks, but there is still room for improvement. Our guys didn’t take a couple of early seasons close loses as a failure, they saw it as an opportunity to learn. We watched film and practiced game situations. Our assistant coaches Derrick Jones, Marshall Wilson, and Juwon Jefferies are doing a great job paying attention to detail and teaching our young men about late game situations. The players deserve the credit. They are showing a little bit of mental toughness. We can prepare them all we want, but they still have to go out and execute.
Q: Overall this is a young group with 11 underclassmen on the 15-man roster. What is the upside for this group moving forward this year and beyond?
A: I am excited for the future of our program. We have a chance to be special. We have three sophomores and a freshman on our varsity roaster that want to be coached. They come in every day and work to get better. If they continue to work each day and gain experience then special things can happen on and off the court. It makes me excited to coach them. I believe our current team has to focus on striving to get better each day, regardless of wins and losses. The focus is to be better than you were the day before.