BY ZACK KLEMME
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
Replacing four out of five starters wouldn’t ordinarily spur a basketball coach to jump for joy.
That very scenario has Bryan Groves enjoying a back-to-basics approach at Russell.
“This year has been a lot more fun due to just the simple fact of, the kids are very coachable,” the third-year head coach said. “They want to learn, and it’s been an adjustment for us as coaches because I want to move forward, but we still need to stay slow and make sure they get it and they’re understanding it.”
Eight Red Devils played in 25 or more games last season. Six of them were seniors, and two more Russell players graduated, too.
The lone Red Devils who saw significant consistent time last year are junior Tristan Miller and sophomore Charlie Jachimczuk. They tie as leading returning scorer, having each pitched in 209 points in 27 games last season (7.7 ppg).
“Experience-wise, we’re super young,” Groves said, “even though we’ve got a bunch of juniors.”
Miller was the 16th Region’s top high-volume perimeter shooter last year as a sophomore, making just over half of his 3-pointers (45 of 89 for 50.6 percent). He’s also the Red Devils’ leading returning rebounder, with 2.1 boards a night last winter.
Miller, whose brother Tanner was a member of Russell's last winning team in 2012-13, has “worked his tail off” in preparation for a basketball future at the next level, Groves said. He’s the only Red Devil that, as of three weeks into the preseason, had essentially nailed down a starting spot.
“He’s really improved in the offseason his pure shooting ability and learned how to shoot off the dribble a lot better,” Groves said of Miller. “His footwork is so much better and his foot speed, in running and moving.
“He’s put a few distractions to the side to focus on basketball, and he’s literally in the gym seven days a week.”
Jachimczuk is one of seven Red Devils who as of the first week of November hadn’t made it to basketball practice yet because they were still playing football.
Russell tried Jachimczuk out as point guard over the summer as a potential successor to the graduated and decorated Bobby Hale.
“It was a little bit of an adjustment,” Groves said. “He still plays off the ball really well. If we do put him back on the ball, it’s gonna be a learning process for him. He’d played point guard his whole life, but he played it at a middle-school level, so it’s a lot different.
“We don’t really know where he’s gonna fit in there, but in the end, I’m pretty sure he’s gonna be one of the guys that’s stepping up and leading us, along with Tristan.”
Junior Jared Goodman and senior Nathan Wheeler will figure in as guards, Groves said. Goodman gained weight and got stronger, the coach said, and Wheeler brings athleticism on the wing.
Freshmen Griff Downs and Bradley Rose — both younger brothers to seniors on last year’s team — and Brady Bell have the potential to fill “big-time roles” this season, Groves said.
Sophomore Anthony Blevins and junior Charlie Bechtel had strong summers, Groves said, and junior Max Cantrell, fresh off Russell’s soccer team, is a “slasher that’s super-athletic.”
Junior Malakai Anderson, a bruising ballcarrier on the gridiron, could be a difference- maker in the post.
“If we put him at the 5, we get a lot quicker, a lot longer, a lot more athletic,” Groves said.
Though Russell’s record may have left something to be desired in the last two seasons — 1319 in 2016-17 and 13-14 last winter — those two seasons weren’t totally devoid of success. The Red Devils ended a three-season absence from the 63rd District finals and 16th Region Tournament in 2017, and they won 11 of 15 games down the stretch last year before falling in the district semifinals.
The Red Devils seek to turn that into greater consistency by improving their shape, Groves said. Russell alumnus Bryson Bennett, whose specialty is training and conditioning, has joined the coaching staff to lead that effort.
“We’ve really put a lot of work into this offseason,” Groves said. “When it comes down to crunch time, to me, the bottom line is, the team that’s outworked the other teams is the one that has success in the postseason. I felt like last year, our offseason workouts weren’t great, so we’ve really changed that this year.”