Davidson Day assembles talented cast, but coach takes nothing for granted
by Chris Hunt
For years, Charlotte has been the home to some of the most celebrated private-school basketball programs in the state. Teams such as two-time 1A state champion United Faith Christian and 3A teams Charlotte Latin and Charlotte Christian earned the lion’s share of attention from their dens tucked away in south Charlotte.
But change could be on the horizon.
For those high school basketball fans who haven’t heard – which seems very unlikely in the era of mass communication – the balance of power might be shifting just a bit, toward a school 18 miles north of Charlotte on Interstate 77. Supported by a tidal wave of media attention, Davidson Day’s boys basketball program has quickly put the Lake Norman area on the private-school map. Entering the 2010-11 campaign, the Patriots have assembled a squad worthy of championship consideration.
Last season, the Patriots secured 22 victories and finished second to United Faith in the Southern Piedmont Athletic Association’s regular season and conference tournament. But expectations for the Patriots are much higher in their second season under coach Ron Johnson. The incoming transfers of former North Mecklenburg star Bernard Sullivan and Concord Cannon standout Keith Belfield, along with the return of All-SPAA point guard Rashun Davis Jr. has given the Patriot program instant credibility.
Suddenly, Davidson Day has become the destination for players looking to take their games to the next level. Players who once considered United Faith, Charlotte Christian or one of the many other respected private-school programs now have another respectable option. This season, the Patriots’ roster lists six talented new players. The biggest new additions, Sullivan and Belfield, credited the lure of playing for Johnson as the biggest reason to leave their previous schools before their senior years.
Sure, Johnson only has one successful season at Davidson Day under his belt, but it’s not as if he’s come out of nowhere. In 2006, Johnson won a 2A state title at Cannon, where he coached from 2004-08. This was following a stellar college basketball career at Barry University in Miami, Florida. After a season on the University of Georgia men’s basketball staff in 2008, Johnson joined Davidson Day for another shot at a high school championship. It’s his reputation for preparing players for the college level that encouraged Sullivan and Belfield, as well as others, to join the Patriots.
“I think kids and their families are interested in being part of a successful program,” said Johnson. “I think from a kid’s perspective, we can help them get better. I don’t see what I do in basketball as anything different as a teacher in a classroom.”
But even the most motivated coaches can’t win championships without talent. Johnson certainly doesn’t have that problem, especially this season. Sullivan is a three-time all-conference performer at the 4A public-school level. The 6-foot-7 forward has been touted as a Division I athlete since he arrived at North Meck as a freshman. Last season, he averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds per game in the star-studded I-MECK 4A conference.
At 6-5, Belfield brings all-conference credentials. There, he teamed up with Virginia Tech recruit Jarell Eddie to form an explosive one-two punch. Belfield is a versatile athlete who can score on the perimeter as well as inside. He proved his prowess on the court at Cannon, scoring 22.0 points per game and collecting six rebounds in his junior campaign. Along with Sullivan and Davis, Belfield is expected to quickly become a leader on his new squad.
“It’s been a smooth transition for Bernard and Keith,” said Johnson. “They are team-first guys, and we anticipate they’ll be leaders on this team. But nothing will be given to them. That was explained to them during admissions.”
The Big Three
In the sport of basketball, the phrase “The Big Three” is a well-worn term these days. The Boston Celtics have their Big Three in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The Miami Heat made national headlines with a big trio of their own in Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Some say building around three all-star performers is the key to a championship basketball team.
At the very least, it’s become a trendy objective.
The Big Three comparison could also be used to describe the talented core of Davidson Day’s 2010-11 squad. This summer, Sullivan committed to play at Clemson University, a dream of his since he attended the Tigers’ basketball camps growing up. Belfield is scheduled to join Furman University in 2011, and Davis is a junior being recruited by George Mason, Boston University, Charleston Southern and Wofford, to name a few. The speedy point guard earned the attention, leading the Patriots in scoring (12.1 points) and assists (4.4). The 5-11 Davis also grabbed 4.2 rebounds a contest.
“I think, locally, Rashun is under the radar,” said Johnson, “but outside the area, he gets a lot of recruiting attention. He’s very quick, creative and handles the ball well.”
After last season, Sullivan, Belfield and Davis could have each stayed put and continued to gather plenty of individual accolades. No one would have questioned their decision to stick with the security of familiarity instead of testing the uncertainty of a new team and a new level of competition. Just like the Miami Heat, however, the Patriots’ Big Three took a chance and joined forces to chase a championship. It’s only preseason, but all three players agree it was the right decision.
“This is the closest team I’ve ever been on,” said Davis. “We are all in it for one goal which is to win states.”
Johnson, however, cringes when asked about comparisons between Sullivan, Belfield and Davis and the Miami Heat headliners. First of all, Sullivan and Belfield decided to transfer to Davidson Day months before “The Decision” made consolidating basketball talent popular.
But that’s not why he discourages the idea.
Johnson said he expects more than three players to contribute this season. Davidson Day’s roster is loaded with talented pieces for a championship run. Power forward Phillip Anglade was Sullivan’s teammate last season at North Meck. He’s a powerful 6-4 and has ridiculous jumping ability. Along with Sullivan, Anglade should bring plenty of toughness under the boards, which the Patriots lacked last season.
Junior guard D.J. Carnegie is another former Viking. Junior Jason Eddie, Jarell Eddie’s brother, played with Belfield last season. Junior guard Sam Mozon came from Vance. All three should upgrade Davidson Day’s harassing perimeter defense and take some pressure off the Big Three offensively.
There are also several returning players with a year of Johnson’s system under their belts. Senior guard Jimmy Bonds averaged 8.4 points last season, senior guard Gabe Mercer chipped in 7.6 points and powerfully built swingman Dorian Albritton muscled his way to 8.8 points and four rebounds. Six-seven center Luke Morrison and 6-1 guard Omar Caldwell are also in their second years with Johnson.
There are so many options on the roster that Johnson kept checking his roster during an interview to make sure he didn’t leave anyone out. It seems that managing the personalities of his talented squad will be high on the priority list. It’s safe to say there are many 1A independent basketball coaches who wish they had Johnson’s problems.
Even so, he’s quick to point out that his team isn’t wearing the target on their backs. He said that distinction is more applicable for established 1A programs, such as defending United Faith or Raleigh Word of God. If you ask Johnson, Davidson Day hasn’t accomplished anything just yet.
“I think people circle us on the schedule because they recognize us from all the publicity, and that’s a good thing,” said Johnson. “But from our perspective, there isn’t one banner hanging in our gym.”
Then again, Johnson’s expectation for his team isn’t that far off championship standards.
“We keep talking to our players about the final weekend of the state championship,” said Johnson. “The Final Four (in the 1A state playoffs) is our ultimate goal. But we have a long way to go to get there. Getting there is a big challenge.”