Dr. Phillips returns several key seniors, including Ernest Udeh Jr., Denzel Aberdeen and Riley Kugel.
It’s hard to get to the top, but it’s a lot harder to stay there.
After winning its first state championship last season in a 54-46 victory over Dwyer High School and a combined record of 24-3, Dr. Phillips’ boys basketball team is set to defend its title this season.
The Panthers have the players to do it in returning seniors Ernest Udeh Jr., Denzel Aberdeen and Riley Kugel. All three of them have committed to Division I schools – Udeh signed with Kansas, Aberdeen with Florida and Kugel with Mississippi State.
Having three players of this caliber is a dream for any coach, but Panthers head coach Ben Witherspoon knows that is only one component of a successful team.
“Talent always gives you a chance, but the talent has to play hard,” he said. “If not, we’ll get beat. They’re going to do great things in college and be high-level players, but they have to show up every single day and every single possession.”
Like all defending champions, DP has a huge target on its back. Where teams were once the hunters, they are now the ones being hunted. Because of this, many teams adjust their styles to fit this new designation. However, Witherspoon said he is not going to change a thing.
“We want to be one of the best teams in the country,” Witherspoon said.
He also added the team still has a way to go before it can lay claim to that title.
“There is still another level we can get to, but it helps the guys knowing that nothing is guaranteed at all,” Witherspoon said. “We have to get better.”
Although the Panthers know that they can rely on those three players, Witherspoon is looking down the roster for players who can help supplement their performance. Sophomore Jordan Tillery was the lone freshman on the team last year but now transitions into a starting role this season. Already, he is turning heads among the coaching staff.
“He has gotten so much better from last year as an offensive player,” Witherspoon said. “His overall confidence has gotten a lot better, as well.”
Mason Sheffield and Jackson Slater also are potential X-factors for the Panthers this season. Both played roles in the team’s playoff run in March and are off to a strong start in the preseason.
“Seeing them improve has been great,” Witherspoon said. Dr. Phillips has started the season by splitting its first two games of the regular season. The team lost to Lake Highland Prep 61-60 and defeated Tri-City High School from East Point, Georgia, 79-69. Both Kugel and Udeh had double-doubles during that game, with Kugel having 26 points and 12 rebounds, and Udeh ending with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Going forward, Witherspoon hopes the team can avoid becoming complacent after winning a state championship and executing good habits on defense.
The Panthers will play their first regular-season home game Dec. 3 against Riviera Prep. Tipoff is at 6:30 p.m.
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