By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Just a couple of wins away from the State Tournament has motivated Munford Head Coach Nic Buford coming into the 2021-22 campaign.
In the offseason, Buford has chatted with basketball minds on the collegiate level and the pros from Murray State Head Coach Matt McMahon to Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant.
Buford has gleaned from those conversations to allow his players to have fun while simultaneously challenging them for greatness.
“The expectations are higher,” Buford acknowledged. “More so for the boys than the coaching staff. The boys are hungrier this year. There is a lot more chatter at practice, it’s louder, lot more communication.
“You have seniors actually taking control of the team as far as the aspect of getting on to players and holding them accountable in a mature way,” he added. “They are taking ownership. They’re taking ownership of the locker room and on the floor. Those are just recipes for success. Their drive is getting into place. And the coaches, yes we’re very hungry for success too.”
The 2020-21 season was marred by COVID-19 with limited practices, new regulations and smaller crowds in the gym. Also the district Munford competed in no longer exists. The new-look league has familiar foes Ripley, Covington, Haywood and Brighton.
“It’s what the middle school district has been for like the past 20 years,” Buford noted. “The kids know each other. It’s familiar. If you’re around my age, you’ve played these same schools also. I like to say we’ve taken back to a basketball district.”
With battle lines drawn and very familiar, Buford said every district night along Highway 51 will have a playoff atmosphere.
“We’re going to have to be prepared to fight every night,” he said. “Starting in January we’re going to have to be prepared to fight every night. As coaches we got together at the end of last year, we took our break and caught our breath. Then we said how can we prepare for this. The only solution we came up with was to get a hard schedule — November and December.”
To reach his expectations and to prepare for the league stretch run, Buford has scheduled tough games to close out 2021 against the likes of Southwind, Fayette-Ware, West Memphis (Ark.) and Jackson Central Merry.
Then the Cougars will take on the Millington Trojans and Bolivar Central Tigers.
“We can very well have a 5-7 record by Christmas break or a 7-5 record,” he explained. “Who knows? I know when we get to January we will be battle-tested. And that was the plan that the coaching staff came up with.”
The first line of defense for the Cougars will be the experienced leadership of the seniors.
“Levi Poindexter and Michael Lee will definitely be two guys this team depends on,” Buford said. “This entire team will depend on them, meaning the guys look to them for leadership on and off the court. We have a couple of other guys as far as sophomores like Murray Norman. And Jordan Bell when he returns from football will be looked at to lead.
Other guys making an impact this year are Alex Walker, Jamarious Ealy (from Riverdale), freshman Jayden Lee and DeCameron Haynes transferring from Millington.
“It could be a successful year,” Buford said. “But those guys have to lock in and bring it everyday. Not just game day, you have to bring it in practice.”
From his conversations with other basketball experts and from his own experiences with the game, Buford said his first goal this season will be a transition of accountability from the coaching staff to those in the locker room.
“It’s on schedule because we have players taking ownership of the team,” he concluded. “I’ve heard so many coaches say this over the years, even as a young boy. They would say, ‘Coach-led teams are good. But player-led teams are great.’ If we can get to the point we have strong leadership every year, that is the culture we want. It will not just be a team but it will be a program. And that is our goal.”