All five starters return for the defending City League champion Libbey Cowboys. From front left are Tony Brown, William Buford and Brad Sandridge. From back left are Julius Wells, veteran coach Leroy Bates and Brad Burton.
When Libbey boys basketball coach Leroy Bates was asked before one recent practice for some statistics on his players from last year, he wasn't sure where to quickly locate them.
Fresher on his mind were some other numbers - the improved first-quarter grade-point averages of most of the senior core of his Cowboys.
William Buford - who by the way averaged 28.5 points and 12.3 rebounds while earning Division I All-Ohio first-team honors last season - scored a 3.3 in the classroom.
Julius Wells was at 3.7, Lance Jones 3.3, Brad Burton 3.1, Brad Sandridge 3.0 and Rod Everage, a transfer from Start, at 3.5.
"I think they're seeing the big picture," Bates said.
You don't have to be a honor-roll student to figure out the bigger picture in this year's City League basketball race.
The Cowboys (21-2 overall), who ranked No. 3 in the final D-I state poll last season, return all five starters plus some experienced bench personnel. They went 11-0 in the league, then beat St. Francis and St. John's in the playoffs to win the City title.
Led by the Ohio State-bound Buford and Wells, who has signed with Marist, Libbey was the unanimous choice of CL coaches to repeat this season.
Having dropped for the first time from Division I to Division II because of decreased enrollment, Libbey has to be considered a solid state-title contender. The momentum for this greatly
anticipated season began two years ago when Bates - broadsided by the transfers away from Libbey of some key players from his 2004-05 squad - was forced to throw his suddenly underclassmen-dominated lineup into the jaws of one of the state's most challenging schedules.
The young Cowboys - led by then sophomores Buford, Wells and Sandridge - went 12-9. But they gained valuable experience facing powerhouse teams like Canton McKinley, Dayton Dunbar, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, and Detroit Redford.
"We've prepared for this for four years," said Bates, who enters his 16th season at Libbey with a 228-111 record. "The core group of our team stayed together, and all of them have made great improvements. I'm very pleased with the progress of Julius Wells, and Lance Jones and Tony Brown have made outstanding improvement.
"Brad Sandridge is probably our best defender and is much more offensive-minded this year. They've all shown a tremendous ability to play together."
And then there is Buford.
"He's a heck of a player," Bates said. "We've never had a player put up the numbers that he's put up, and I've never seen a player improve the way he has, so rapidly, in the last three years.
"When it's all said and done, his record will speak for itself. What he needs to do now is make sure that our team's record is secured in the history books. He has the focus and wants to do that, and he has a great accompanying cast to get that done."
Buford has his priorities set.
"We're just trying to focus on our schoolwork and go hard in the gym every time we're in there," Buford said. "I want us to go undefeated, win the City championship and then go win the state championship. We're going to give it our all every time we step out on the court.
"We need to play together as a team and not let anybody get big-headed."
The Cowboys, upset by St. John's in last season's district final, face another challenging schedule this season.
Libbey plays against D-I state power Lakewood St. Edward in Columbus at Value City Arena Jan. 12, at Canton McKinley Jan. 19, against Michigan power Saginaw at Owens College Jan. 21, and at Akron SVSM Feb. 2.
"The strength of our schedule the past three years really prepared us for where we are right now," Bates said. "We played some outstanding teams, and all that helped the kids to believe that we can compete on a statewide basis."
Wells, who missed more than half of his junior season with a knee injury, rehabbed and played well enough in the summer to sign with Marist.
"Julius has been tremendous," Bates said. "He shows a great deal of leadership on the court as well as athletic ability. He is ready for the prime time, and I think he'll prove it this year."
Wells is glad to have the college scholarship secured.
"That's a plus going into the season because I can just play my game now," Wells said. "My mom was praying for me to get a scholarship.
"Last year [being injured] was a learning experience for me. I learned a lot from just sitting down and watching. I cried after every game because I wanted to play so bad. I had to keep working until I could come back."
Sandridge also made strides.
"Brad is the most consistent player we've had on our team, defensively and offensively," Bates said. "He's going to be the glue that keeps us together."
"People are expecting us to do a lot of stuff, but we need to take it one game at a time," Sandridge said. "We can't separate from each other. We're like brothers on this team."
Libbey has more.
"Brad Burton is our unseen assassin," Bates said. "He kills them on the defensive end because he's a great shot blocker, and he kills them off the rebound. He's one of the hidden treasures of our basketball team.
"We're putting the ball in [point guard] Tony Brown's hands to get it to the right people, and he's improved in that area."
"You could say Lance is our sixth starter. He started quite a few games for us last year. He can play all five positions."
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