Of the 150 boys basketball teams across the state that entered the week ranked by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches, only four carried an unbeaten record. One of them resides at Newman Smith High School.
The Trojans, currently ranked No. 7 in Class 5A, continued their unblemished season on Friday with a 79-38 victory over rival R.L. Turner to improve to 18-0 and further bolster a year like no other in program history.
“It’s exciting. I wouldn’t say it has been surprising, but it’s just great to see the things the kids have bought into that have made it a special first half of the year,” said Percy Johnson, Smith head coach.
The result has been a group that Johnson has enjoyed coaching as much as any during his tenure with the Trojans. Part of that stems from a natural chemistry among a roster chalked in experience from last season’s run to the area round of the playoffs — just from Smith’s 71-55 bi-district win over Spruce, nearly 79% of the Trojans’ scoring is back on the varsity roster this season.
“The biggest thing with this team is that the chemistry is here and it was here early. When you have to chase kids out of the locker room or the gym after practice, it says a lot,” Johnson said. “They want to stay in the gym, keep scrimmaging and keep playing basketball … but sometimes you have to slow them down and let them know it’s a long season. But it’s a good problem to have.”
That work ethic has carried over into Tuesday and Friday nights where Smith has authored the best start to a season in program history. Within their first 17 games have come 17 victories by an average of 23.9 points per game, including 13 by double digits and eight by at least 20 points.
One that stuck out to Johnson early into the season was a Nov. 25 victory at Jesuit, where the Trojans withstood a frenetic home crowd for a 70-55 win over the Rangers in one of the season’s first signs of promise for the head coach.
“Just the way the guys competed — we’d go on a run, they’d go on a run and then we’d come right back when adversity hit. The guys kept fighting,” Johnson said. “We did a lot of things with all 11 guys — not just one or two — and when you see 11 contribute, it means a lot and makes a difference.”
Additional wins have followed over Class 6A programs Irving MacArthur, Hebron and Sachse, as well as private school power Prestonwood Christian and familiar foe McKinney North, which eliminated the Trojans from the playoffs last season.
Smith has done so by generating plenty of baskets in transition — a comfort in the open court that stems from a defensive mentality.
“All the kids are a threat offensively, but they’ve also bought in defensively. We want to make sure other teams know that we’re going to guard them. You’re going to get us for all 94 feet,” Johnson said. “… We put a lot of pressure, but we also try to make teams uncomfortable by throwing multiple defenses at them. The other team’s point guard is going to have someone in his face at all times and the guys pick up the rest of the slack from there.”
At the forefront of that effort is leading scorer and senior Jarren Cook, a Sam Houston State commit who emerged as one of the area’s premier players last season behind 24 points per game.
“Jarren is a talented player, but he’s also a humble kid,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t walk around beating his chest and sometimes I have to push him just to stand out at times. He’s one of those guys who looks forward to playing with this group.”
That includes teammates like senior Domani Villaruel, who Johnson deemed “a force in the paint,” and junior Thibaut Tagnon, who the coach lauded for his high basketball IQ. Johnson noted that Tagnon’s smarts carry over into the classroom as well, with the point guard recently scoring a 33 on his ACT.
“Sometimes I have to lean in and ask him what he thinks we should do in a certain situation,” Johnson joked.
The contributions are wide-ranging for the Trojans, be it the promise shown by up-and-coming sophomore Devin Peters-Teague, the intensity exuded by senior Bobby Smith III or the outside shooting developed by senior AJ Bar-Jona.
“They do a good job. I’ve been blessed to have a good coaching staff that helps keep the guys tuned in and just focused on winning a practice and letting the games take care of themselves,” Johnson said. “Our kids talk about it and they know they’ve never been here before, so we talk about how to handle it and I think they’ve done a good job with that. It’s a shy group of kids that doesn’t say much.”
Maintaining that approach has worked wonders for the Trojans so far, and they hope it pays off once again on Tuesday when faced with one of their biggest tests of the season — a 7:30 p.m. road game at Highland Park, the reigning district champions and preseason pick to win 11-5A.
“They’ve been doing a great job for years and they’re always on the top in whatever district they’re in,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a tough match, no doubt about it. We’re the underdogs, because they were the champs last year and they haven’t lost in district yet.
“It’s a hill that we need to climb and I’m just looking forward to a great game.”