As if losing Jalen Love and Nathan Jackson to graduation wasn’t alarming enough, East’s basketball team faced further upheaval in the months after their departure.
First, legendary coach Ron Allen retired after winning 280 games and a pair of Class 6A championships with the Blue Aces. Then East lost one of its best and most versatile players as post player Larry Dennis transferred to Sunrise Academy.
There have been times this season when East has looked like a team struggling to regroup after major changes. But, more often than not, they’ve been the exact opposite.
East returns to the 6A Tournament after a four year absence, and the No. 6-seed Aces play Shawnee Mission East in Wednesday’s late game at Koch Arena.
“I just think we came in and we wanted to work,” East point guard DeShawn Terrell said. “We didn’t really think about losing Larry, even though he was a big part of our team. We just wanted to come in and work hard.”
If establishing continuity following the departure of its coach and two best players was the goal, East accomplished it by hiring Joe Jackson, Allen’s assistant for three years. Since he spent significant time with Allen, Jackson does many things the same way. He hasn’t needed to change because his environment has stayed mostly the same.
Even though the Aces lost Love and Nathan Jackson, they returned six seniors, including Terrell and center JJ Normore, best friends since childhood. This season has also seen the continuing maturity of sophomore guard Samaje Jones, who has become one of the Aces’ top scorers.
“Coach Allen left the program in great shape,” Joe Jackson said. “We’ve got six seniors on the team and they are our leaders in various aspects. Not everybody’s a vocal leader, but we have some very talented players. This group of seniors is the first group I had as freshmen when I first came to East, and this is just a really talented class.”
That familiarity allowed Jackson to mold East’s players to fit his team-first concept and establish chemistry when players were asked to adjust following the offseason’s major roster turnover.
It wasn’t always an easy process as some of East’s returners clamored for more significant roles. “Jalen did the majority of the scoring last year, and Nathan Jackson as well,” Joe Jackson said. “Those two guys got a ton of the credit for what we did last year offensively, and I think we had a few guys believing in that. When you look across the board we’re a very balanced team. It’s a luxury.
“But at the same time, that’s one of the fights we had early on, trying to blend guys and realize roles and everything like that. It’s also been a very rewarding experience, when you fight and fight with that and the kids have really bought in.”
East’s struggles reached their apex in the middle of the season, when a stretch of five losses in eight games included a three-game losing that dropped its record to 9-7.
Seeing their problems threaten to derail their season became a turning point for the Aces. They haven’t lost since Feb. 8 and enter the state tournament on a six-game winning streak.
“We started playing team ball,” Normore said. “That’s what we weren’t doing, we were playing a lot of one-on-one. But we started playing team ball these last few games and it’s worked out.”
Terrell is a major reason for the turnaround, as he’s cemented his style as a pass-first point guard who consistently involves Normore, a post player and the perimeter-oriented Jones into the offense.
Allen has been a frequent attendee at East’s games this season — he saw the Aces clinch their state berth by beating Southeast last weekend — watching it transform from upheaval to upward mobility.
“We do a lot of what coach Allen did here mixed with in a lot of what I did (at a previous coaching stop) in Hill City and some of the things I learned up there,” Joe Jackson said. “I’m trying to kind of take a combination of both things and make the most out of it. Lately the kids have been buying into what we’re trying to do and it’s been a good experience.”