by Andrew Garda

Montclair Kimberley Academy boys basketball coach Tony Jones has been enjoying the preseason.

Last year was a tough one, he says, a year of growth. The team was young and motivation was what the staff focused on and it took some time before the team found success late in the season.

“I mean, we lost some tough ones early,” Jones recalled in the coach’s office at MKA Middle School after practice on Tuesday. “I thought January was particularly a struggle and the guys were trying to figure out how to compete. It’s no longer an issue for us. Now it’s about how to execute.”

Getting the team to execute will be the difference between having a very good season or a disappointing one. The team Jones has coming back is senior heavy, and many of those seniors were varsity players last year. Even a few who weren’t played down on junior varsity, not because they weren’t good, but because it would have been difficult to get them into the rotation at the varsity level and they needed playing time.

The returning players know how to compete each game, so now it’s a matter of improving execution of both their offensive and defensive schemes.

Offensively, Jones wants the Cougars to move the ball and strike quickly.

“We call it organized chaos. We want be able to score in transition. We want to be able to create advantages for us and our teammates and get the defense moving.”

The Cougars do it, according to Jones, with both set plays and a structured motion offense.

“We tweak it every year. Some years we’re great at it because guys understand what to do,” Jones said. “Last year wasn’t great, this year we’re better.” That doesn’t mean MKA runs it perfectly. Jones said there were plenty of turnovers during the last scrimmage, but he said they were different than the ones that plagued the team last season.

“There are really bad turnovers and turnovers which are just like — they’re trying but the skill level isn’t there yet. We’re at the latter. We understand what we want to do, now it’s about how we can effectively do it.”

These turnovers, Jones said, are less about having a pass stolen and taken the other way for a layup and more about throwing the ball out of bounds on a pass which was a little too high or too far.

On defense, Jones wants the Cougars to be aggressive and continuously on top of the opposing offense.

“We want to disrupt you,” Jones said. “We want to be able to get deflections. We want to be able to take away your three point shots, and not give up layups. And we do that a lot of ways. We play zone, we play man. We try to take away your strengths.”

A key piece on both ends of the court is rebounding, something the Cougars were good at last season and have continued to improve with this preseason.

“We’re pretty long and some of our guys are thicker, like football players and former football players, so they don’t mind contact. That helps us. For us if we can limit a team to one shot or no shots, we’ll take our chances.”

Doing so will take everyone pitching in. There’s no one player who the team has to lean on each night, but a myriad of players who each can fill any number of roles.

“We have nine or ten guys who, theoretically, could help at any point. I would say the guys with the most experience would be Luke Kolaja, a sophomore, Myles Farmer, a senior, and then we have [junior] Trey Wilson. Brendan Powell and a bunch of other seniors will be trying to help.”

Farmer and Kolaja will be big pieces of the offense, as they are the two leading scorers returning this season, but Jones said to keep an eye out for senior Carter McNeal.

“He might have been our leading scorer in the preseason.” Still, Jones emphasized that it’s never going to come down to just one person.

“In order for us to be good, we need like seven or eight guys to own up to their responsibilities and perform. This is definitely an ensemble cast, and we definitely will play to our strengths.”

If they do that, Jones likes their chances.

“We are definitely in a division where we feel like we have a chance to win. We feel like every game we play, if all goes well, we should have a chance to win in the fourth quarter. And that’s all you want.”

That said, Jones knows that while he believes in his team, they have to put in the effort.

“For us, we’re  not good enough to just show up and win. They’ve gotta be prepared to play against everyone. We’re playing Livingston [Friday] and it’s going to be a home game for them. Opening night. It’s going to be packed and they’re going to be excited. We need to be ready. We have no idea who they are or what they look like. And it’s going to be tough.”

Livingston is just the first of many tests, including crosstown rival Montclair High School, Glen Ridge and Nutley.

Those are concerns for another day, though. Right now, Jones and the Cougars are taking it one game at a time.

“For me,” Jones said, “I try to think about Livingston, Friday night. Then I’ll think about Arts on Tuesday and Nutley coming up on Thursday. And then we’ll see.”