Nobody after last year could have predicted Salpointe and Pueblo would meet as two unbeaten teams this late into a basketball season.
“Late” is an interesting way to put it since the 2020-21 season that was delayed two months because of COVID-19 is in its first two to three weeks. Normally, the state playoffs would have started by now.
The Lancers lost their entire starting lineup from a year ago, including point guard captain Evan Nelson, that captured the school’s first state championship.
Pueblo was a .500 team and a coaching change ensued.
“It’s really hard to predict because like everyone would say, we’ve never really played a game for like 11 months,” Salpointe coach Jim Reynolds said.
COVID-19 was not in anyone’s vocabulary before the calendar turned March last year. Salpointe won its title with a 30-1 record on the last day of February.
Salpointe’s senior standouts of today — 6-foot guard Brady Ramon and 6-9 forward Myles Hersha — were role players for the Lancers last year playing behind Braden Miller (Sean’s son) and Grant Weitman. Tommy Irish, another senior biding his time, had Nelson ahead of him in the pecking order.
That trio — Ramon, Hersha and Irish — is as good as any in the state now.
They combined for 46 points in Salpointe’s 67-44 win on Monday night against a Pueblo team led by first-year coach Harry Whitaker Jr. that will be reckoned with in the next couple of years with quicksilver sophomore point guard Armari Carraway and 6-foot-11, 225-pound developing junior post player Zach Morgan.
Salpointe is now 6-0 and Pueblo 3-1.
“A lot of us have grown up together and we knew we weren’t going to lose a step coming into this year, even losing all those seniors,” said Hersha, who had 11 of his 14 points in the first half to set the tone. “Most of us got playing time last year regardless of that so we’re coming in ready to win again this year.
“We’ve got a chip on our shoulder. We want to win again.”
Hersha and Morgan provided a big-man competition rarely seen in Southern Arizona high school basketball. They know each other’s games well after being teammates for Tucson’s AAU team Team Prep Dynasty.
“I was motivated. We’ve played with each other and against each other before,” Hersha said. “He’s considered one of the best bigs in Tucson and Southern Arizona. I want to put myself out there, too.”
Morgan, who has gone through a growth spurt in recent years, has developed from wanting to be a quarterback in football to striving for a college career as a basketball player.
Despite being the tallest player on the court, Morgan opened the game with a 3-pointer, an indication of his versatility. He started playing organized basketball only three years ago in the eighth grade after his days in the Tucson Youth Football and Spirit Federation.
“I wanted to play football but then I grew about 10 inches,” said Morgan, who was beset by two early fouls against Salpointe and finished with 16 points. “Right now, I’m developing really fast. I believe my touch around the rim is getting way better. I’m trying to develop a shot.
“I definitely want to become a leader for my team and a scorer at all times.”
Morgan has the rest of this season, this summer and next season to establish his game further with Carraway running the point for Whitaker and the Warriors.
Carraway, 5-foot-10 and 140 pounds, transferred from Fresno’s Washington Union High because basketball is not being played right now in California due to COVID-19. He is a distant relative of Whitaker.
Remember this name: Armari Carraway, sophomore PG from Fresno who transferred to @PuebloBoysBB this year. Developing prospect. Very quick, excellent ball handler and fearless. Has played in some marquee showcase events in California. #ASThssports pic.twitter.com/45POIriUnt
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) February 9, 2021
“I thought it was just a good opportunity for me to come out here to Arizona,” Carraway said. “My coach (Whitaker) has helped train me and we have built a relationship. I like playing in Tucson so far. It’s a different experience from California, of course.”
Carraway has a background of playing in high-profile youth basketball events such as the Pangos All-West/Frosh-Soph Camp and the Central Cali Prospect Workouts in which budding prospects show their wares for scouts.
After one of these camps, Carraway told reporters Arizona is one of his dream destinations.
“Armari’s pretty advanced for the 2023 class, a sophomore, he’s going to help Tucson out,” said Whitaker, a youth basketball coach in Tucson the last 13 years who was Pueblo’s freshman coach the previous two seasons before taking over this year.
“He’ll bring that guard position back to Tucson. Arizona had that point guard atmosphere. That’s one thing I keep telling Amari. That’s what I love about Arizona, they always had that we call it the Point Guard U. at one point. He would fit into that system as well.”
That’s a lofty goal for Carraway, who showed a throwback style with a crafty mid-range game, swishing jumpers against Salpointe to finish with 13 points.
Carraway is hard to defend off the dribble because of his quickness. He can blow by defenders for high-percentage shots or he draws fouls because of hand checks to keep up with him. He’s not afraid to go into the lane and score against bigger players. His speed makes him a good defender as well.
He said he wants to work more on being a facilitator.
“I feel like I have to get my teammates involved more and be more vocal on the court, communicate more on defense and stuff like that,” Carraway said.
Reynolds has seen his fair share of quality guards in his 32 years of coaching, extending to his time in Cincinnati. His son is Ryan Reynolds, Arizona’s assistant athletic director for basketball operations who has been by Sean Miller’s side since their Xavier days in Cincinnati.
The elder Reynolds likes what he sees in Carraway.
“He’s a good one,” Reynolds said. “We could run a bunch of guys at him. I think we kind of wore him down. He’s young, they’re young, without a lot of seniors. They will only get better.”
Ramon, who finished with a game-high 17 points, was one of the four guards Reynolds rotated on Carraway. By season’s end, Ramon will build his portfolio for a college career as well.
The sixth man on last year’s title team, he’s tenacious on defense and helps Salpointe’s flow on offense as an effective inside-outside threat.
Ramon said the key to Salpointe’s early-season success after such a turnover in talent is because Reynolds “just lets us play.”
“He is a real lenient guy,” Ramon said. “He doesn’t control us with plays or anything like that. He knows that we all can play together and move the ball around. We all have our individual strengths and he just lets us play our game.”
Reynolds’ coaching style fits in with his calm instructive style that also made him a successful educator through the years. It is obvious his players are nurtured and properly groomed from his basketball knowledge and straightforward, pleasant demeanor.
It is really no wonder how Salpointe looks so dominant again after all the changes. Reynolds keeps things at an even keel with his personality.
“I’m not a big proponent of a lot of set plays to begin with,” he said. “We just want to move the ball and and share it. We’ve got good players, so if we create space, we’re gonna get good looks.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.