by Chris Hunt
Over the holidays, I sat down in front of the TV to watch former North Mecklenburg basketball star Kyle Gaillard play for William & Mary in a nationally televised game against the University of North Carolina on Dec. 21. After covering Gaillard for The Herald Weekly during his junior and senior seasons of high school, I was curious to see how the 6-foot-7 sophomore would fair at the Division I college level.
I have to tell you I was really impressed.
Gaillard scored 25 points against the Tar Heels. He had not one, not two, not three, not even four – but five thunderous dunks against the fabled college basketball program. He was also 11-for-14 from the field and sank two of his four 3-point attempts.
Needless to say, I was fired up watching that game.
Don’t get me wrong. I had seen Gaillard dunk many times over high school players. Heck, he even served up an emotionally crippling facial over Yours Truly in a pick-up game at Huntersville’s FitCare LifeCenter at Birkdale. I didn’t see it because I had my eyes closed as I curled into the fetal position, but judging by the “Oohhhs” and “Awws” from the other players, it’s safe to assume I was “posterized” by the former Viking.
But c’mon! Five dunks and 25 points against a legendary basketball program? As a sophomore? We’re not talking UNC Greensboro, UNC Wilmington or even UNCC; we’re talking the UNC Tar Heels. Although William & Mary lost the game by a score of 85-60 in the Dean Dome, the Gaillard family had to be very proud.
Gaillard’s outstanding performance got me thinking about two seasons ago, when his talented North Mecklenburg squad squared off against Hopewell’s impressive team of soon-to-be college basketball players. The Titans’ five starters from that season – Brandyn Curry (Harvard), Alex Godette (Army), Bryce Hawkins (Lenoir-Rhyne), Jordan Downing (Davidson) and DéMon Brooks (Davidson) – all play in college this year.
The Vikings took on the Titans with plenty of talent of their own in Gaillard, Andre Marhold (Duquesne), B.J. Beasley (junior college in New Mexico ), Eric Panicco (Georgia’s Emory University) and Bernard Sullivan (a Clemson commit).
North Meck’s leading scorer this season, Carlin Bremner, a soon-to-be college basketball player, was a sophomore on that team. Those were some great high school games, especially when it was standing room only at North Meck’s tiny basketball gym.
Boy, was I spoiled.
Looking at the landscape of the I-MECK 4A conference this season, I think I might have underestimated how many elite players were on the court at that time. The talent is quite the same. Not only was Hopewell and North Meck loaded two years ago, but Vance had four dynamic guards in Braxton Ogbueze (now a junior at United Faith), Marquis Rankin (a Virginia Tech recruit, now a senior at Hargrove Military Academy), Jacoby Davis (a West Charlotte High senior who committed to North Florida) and Daryl Traynham, who moved to Washington, D.C. before last season and verbally committed to the University of Massachusetts this winter, according to ESPN.com.
Last season, after Vance’s electric backcourt broke up, Lake Norman moved into the conference, led by former Viking Kevin Canevari and Paul Larsen, who both are now freshmen on Mercer (Georgia) University’s basketball squad. West Charlotte and another new team, Mooresville, boasted stars J.T. Terrell (now at Wake Forest) and Shawn Lester (now a junior with the Blue Devils), respectively.
That’s 17 legitimate college basketball players who went head-to-head during a two-year span from the 2008-09 to the 2009-10 season. I wonder how many high school conferences across the country had that much talent. I would argue that it was the golden age of high school basketball in the Lake Norman area.
Hold on, hold on. Before everyone gets all crazy and starts shouting, “What about Jamie Skeen and North Meck’s 2005 state championship team?” Let me explain: I also don’t want to hear about the 1992-93 Viking team led by DeMarco Johnson before I have a chance to state my case.
I’m not talking about the best team in North Mecklenburg history. I’m talking about the best collection of college basketball talent in the Lake Norman area.
Sure, in the past there have been better players in our area. But there hasn’t been a better collection of talent in the conference. Jason Parker was a beast at West Charlotte from 1997 through 1999, and the Lions’ Curtis Weathers dominated the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons. It also must have been fun to watch West Charlotte’s Thad Bonaparte clash with Johnson during the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons.
I’m not saying there weren’t some extremely competitive games in the past. Even Skeen, along with teammate and UNC-Greensboro standout Ben Skywall, had to contend with former Central Cabarrus star and current Houston Rocket Ish Smith. But I doubt those guys played with and against 16 college recruits in a two-year span.
There might have been better head-to-head matchups on one particular night, but not night-after-night, like two seasons ago. The high school careers of the elite players mentioned above were spread across 20 years, so they did not play against each other.
Even Hopewell coach Damon Bost agrees with me, and he’s been an assistant coach with the Titans since the 2002-03 season.
“The 2005 North Meck team had five starters who could have played college basketball,” said Bost. “There was nobody at the level of Skeen – I haven’t seen that yet – but I have never seen so many Division I teams in a two-year span as two seasons ago.”
Trust me, I did my research.
I even spoke with former longtime North Meck coach/athletics director Leroy Holden and current coach Duane Lewis to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Of course, neither would commit to either side of my argument – coaches can be so politically correct when a tape recorder is on – but both were kind enough to lend historical perspective so I could come to a conclusion of my own.
Here’s a little more data to chew on: Curry, a two time-MECA-7 conference Player of the Year, has started every game for Harvard at point guard as a sophomore this season, averaging 9.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists per contest. Terrell is continuing his scoring frenzy at Wake Forest, leading the Demon Deacons with 13.7 points per game, scoring 32 points – including the game-winning 3-pointer from NBA range – against Iowa on Nov. 30.
And there’s more.
Gaillard has started all but one game this season and is averaging 8.2 points per game and shooting 40 percent from behind the arc. Marhold is only a sophomore with plenty of Atlantic-10 minutes under his belt. Hawkins, Brooks and Downing are averaging more than five points per game early in their careers, when most freshmen don’t even see the scorer’s table. Canevari and Larsen are also earning reserve minutes in their first season.
After watching those players make immediate impacts early in their college basketball careers, I’m confident Sullivan, Rankin, Davis, Bremner and Lester will do the same next season. Just like I’m certain the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons were the golden age of Lake Norman-area basketball.