Second-year Head Coach Billy Dixon and the Pine Bluff Zebras (1-0) began the 2017-2018 season with a 30-point victory over the El Dorado Wildcats on Nov. 14. Even though they won in blowout fashion, Dixon is harping on the fact that his group is young and inexperienced. That's to be expected due to the fact that the Zebras had 10 seniors last season, and they took up a majority of the minutes.
Dixon mentioned a couple of upperclassmen that they'll look to lean on for leadership in senior guard Kendrick Thorn and senior forward Justin Tiller.
"Those 10 seniors are gone," Dixon said. "We have one returning starter in Kendrick Thorn, and Tiller has some playing time under his belt. We will rely on them early for leadership and production. The rest is made up of guys who haven't been in the rotation. We're going to be young and very inexperienced."
The Zebras won a 6A state championship in 2014-2015, and were the runners-up the next season, and on those teams Dixon served as an assistant coach to former Head Coach Clarence Finley. Since Finley's departure, Dixon has been instrumental in the Zebras not taking a huge fall from the top. Last season, Pine Bluff made it to the semi-finals of the 6A tournament, where they were ousted by the El Dorado Wildcats.
That El Dorado team lost a lot of talent, including current Arkansas Razorback forward Daniel Gafford. The Zebras handed it to them last week in the season opener, but Dixon knows they're a long way off from where they need to be in the end.
"We had moments and sparks where we looked the way we would like to," Dixon said. "For the most part we played like we were young, but we got some positive things out of it. To get on the level we need to be at the end of the year is what it's all about right now. We made too many mistakes, and committed too many turnovers. We need time, that's what it's going to take for this ball club."
Dixon mentioned a few of the young guys that had put up good numbers in the opener. Junior point guard Kaleb Higgins is a guy that they've been aware of when it comes to his talents, but last season it was tough for him to crack the rotation.
Junior forward Darius Morris, the younger brother of former Zebra DeQuan Morris, has potential that's through the roof according to Dixon. Senior forward D.J. Martin was another that Dixon couldn't avoid mentioning. Higgins led the team with 22 points, and Morris finished with 20 points and eight rebounds in the win over El Dorado.
"The kids work hard," Dixon said. "Right now it's a huge learning curve. Playing basketball is one thing, but playing on the level we want to is totally different. We won big against El Dorado, but we looked inexperienced and like a team that hasn't been under the lights. We're pushing them in practice."
"Darius Morris had a big game and we're excited about him," Dixon said. "Kaleb Higgins is a guy that we'll rely on to run the offense, and he didn't get to play because we had other guys last year. D.J. Martin is another guy who has had his moments. Darius Morris has an instinctive ability to go get the basketball, and he can run all day. We'll develop him eventually into a small-forward, and his stock will rise. We can play him from the 3-5 right now and he's uses his length on defense."
Although a lot of the guys on this Zebras team haven't garnered the playing minutes, they've seen this program go toe-to-toe with the best of them from a first-hand point of view. Dixon eluded to the fact that Pine Bluff High is the second winning-est basketball program in the state of Arkansas, and that these guys know their expectations.
"Most of these guys have been on the team," Dixon said. "They know what our workouts are like and they know the goals that we have around here. Everything we do is to get us to where we want to be in the end. There are high expectations in this program. Traditionally, Pine Bluff High is the second winning-est program in the state in high school basketball. Success isn't measured on how you start, it's how you finish. In the past it has happened for us. We've been able to play until the final few games of the season in the last three or four years."
Knowing where one stands is very important to the program from Dixon's point-of-view. Transparency is something that Dixon is emphasizing this season, and he firmly believes it's the best way to go.
"I'm very transparent, and every kid in my program knows where they stand," Dixon said. "Everybody wants to play but if they're not, they clearly know why, and they know what they need to improve on. That's better for the team."
The Zebras will next compete in the North Little Classic where they will take on the Conway Wampus Cats on Nov. 25 at North Little Rock High School.