Howard basketball coach Walter McGary didn't worry about his players being tough enough to compete. His larger challenge was convincing them to channel that toughness into a team direction.
"We needed them to be 'team tough,' to realize that toughness isn't just an individual thing," McGary said. "That's hard to overcome, because in this community many of them were raised up not really relying on other people."
Amid the inner-city surroundings of Howard's campus, McGary said his players tend to develop self-reliance "as one of their survival keys." Getting them to trust their teammates on the court — to abandon the hero's burden and confide in someone else at crucial times — was the tipping point of this season.
Howard's return to the Class AA state tournament this week tells McGary his team has unified.
The Hustlin' Tigers (21-9), who entered this season with only three returning lettermen, are headed back to Murfreesboro for the third consecutive year, and on Wednesday they'll face Liberty Tech (28-6), who eliminated Howard the previous two times.
The quarterfinal matchups were established by the TSSAA in Saturday's blind draw.
"Like I told our kids, at this point it doesn't matter who we play, because everybody's good," McGary said. "But knowing Liberty has put us out of state the last two years, our kids are feeling pretty excited about the draw."
Liberty Tech beat Howard 61-53 in the state semifinals last season and claimed the state title one day later. During the 2010 state quarterfinals, Liberty knocked out Howard 61-50.
Howard's return to the state tournament is a testament not only to the development of 6-foot-8 junior center Brandon Walters, but also to a rotation of complementary contributors. Senior guard Anthony Smith rebounded from a midseason suspension to earn all-region honors, while 6-5 freshman Wayne Caudle has evolved into a double-double threat after recovering from a hamstring injury.
Senior guard RodDarius Martin is a fearless penetrator and a tight on-the-ball defender, while Smith's younger brother Antonio, has spent his junior season adapting to the point guard role.
Three sophomores — Rashad Brummit, Cudjoe Young and Lorenzo McCauley — have provided game-changing moments as well.
"I keep telling them that we are not a one-dimensional team, that we've got more tools than just big Brandon in the middle," McGary said. "We just need to believe and trust in those other aspects. In this tournament, you don't know who's going to have to step up and produce at any given time."
Howard plays on despite two big personnel losses. Point guard Jarvis Ray — whose 15 points led Howard in the state semifinal loss to Liberty last season — was academically ineligible this year, while starting forward Xavier Harris had his junior season nixed in January by a serious knee injury.
"We have been kind of beleaguered all year, but the kids kept working," McGary said.
As for the scouting report on Liberty, which was ranked No. 3 in the AP's final Class AA poll, McGary anticipates more of the same full-court pressure the Crusaders have deployed in previous seasons.
"They press a lot," he said, "and the press has been our bugaboo at times."
Howard experienced moderate success this season against the pressing defenses it faced from District 6-AA contenders Tyner, East Ridge and Brainerd, along with three teams it faced in late December at the Sonic Shootout in Sparta. Though the Hustlin' Tigers had an 8-5 record against those teams, they committed far too many turnovers for McGary's liking. In the 74-73 regional final victory over Tyner, for instance, Howard somehow overcame 31 turnovers.
The Tigers subsequently committed only 11 turnovers in last week's 73-63 sectional playoff win over Sequatchie County.
"If we keep our turnovers down, we can play with anybody," McGary said.