by Andrew Garda

The Montclair Kimberley Academy boys basketball team had a pretty decent run last year, compiling a 17-9 record, but falling just short of a conference title.

“Last year we lost two games early and it cost us the conference,” said head coach Tony Jones. “We lost to Glen ridge at their place, and they’re pretty good so that’s not really unexpected. But we lost to Nutley here and that was tough. We were the only team to beat Glen Ridge in our division. But we got better as the season went.”

This year, Jones is hoping for more improvement week to week.

It’s not going to be easy, as there has been plenty of changeover on the team.

Luke Kolaja would have been a big part of the team his junior year, but he transferred to the Blair Academy, while 6-foot, 5-inch Evan Portnoy moved on to Gill St. Bernard’s. Meanwhile, Trey Wilson and Jack O’Connell were injured during football season. Jones hopes O’Connell will be back this month, while Wilson should be back at some point in January.

That leaves a lot of room for new blood.

“We’re really young, we’re starting three freshmen and Andrew [Friedman] is the only [returning] guy who played at all last year,” Jones said. “So we’re going to take our lumps, as far as wins and losses. Our goal is to try and be better every month and that’s what we talk about.”

Some of those lumps are coming during scrimmages, such as the one the Cougars had against McNair High School last week.

At times, MKA did a good job on both ends of the floor, showing some nice passing and shooting on offense while also making some good stops on defense. Other times, though, their rawness showed as the opposition went on several runs that left MKA in the dust.

“There were some moments, even in this scrimmage, where we were ok and some moments we just weren’t,” Jones said of the game. “And our goal is to try and reduce that basement a bit but it’s going to take some time with us.”

With so few players with varsity experience, Jones expects to tinker with the starting five — and really the whole varsity roster — all throughout the early season.

“For us, the month of December we’re going to be evaluating.  We’re only playing three or four games in December, and then as we move into January, where the conference really starts, then we’ll start locking in on players. It’s very fluid and I’m pretty up front with the team. We’re still trying to figure out who’s going to be our top eight. We like to play eight guys, if more force the issue we’ll play 10. ”

Jones said he has made sure the team knows every job is up for grabs, every day.

“We talked about coming into practice, and being competitive and we try and make our practices as competitive as possible. And they know, there’s nothing set in stone,” Jones said. “So it’s so wide open. We’re looking for guys to be aggressive, guys to be attentive, and then we’ll finish out the rest.”

One player who stood out in the scrimmage last week was Payman Mahdi, a junior with a long range and, at least that night, an uncanny ability to hit a three-point shot.

Mahdi easily sank six or seven long balls, and there were times when he was the entire offense.

“He’s a good shooter, he might be one of our best shooters on the team,” Jones said. “Real good shooter and a smart guy. He’ll help us, he’s a junior. I mean, Payman played really well today, but how’s he going to play tomorrow?”

MKA senior Andrew Friedman is the only returner who had significant varsity minutes during the 2017-18 season.
MKA senior Andrew Friedman is the only returner who had significant varsity minutes during the 2017-18 season.

With so much uncertainty, Jones is keeping his expectations realistic, hence all the talk of improvement each day. That’s not to say MKA isn’t in it to win it, just that he knows it could be a long process.

It also means he has to make sure he adapts to what his team can do this year, and not try to force his players to try and play like the team did last season.

“We’re not as athletic. I think we can still advance the ball quickly and efficiently, but last year is over,” Jones explained. “It’s a different team, the length is different, everything is different. But we still want to try and take advantage in transition, if we can. We might have to do it a little bit differently, but we want to advance the ball quickly, efficiently and see what we get.”

The reality, according to Jones, is that no matter who he has on the floor, the aim is the same — take advantage of situations that come about in transition.

How much they do that will inform how well the Cougars do this season.

“What I learned from last season is that working hard and being consistent in practice every day is important,” Jones said. “Obviously, I think last year’s team was more talented and more experienced but they even needed to learn that as they went on.”

Just like this group of Cougars will this season.

MKA starts it’s year off at home against Irvington High School on Friday, Dec. 14, 7 p.m.