With a new coach, new faces, too many players of the same ilk and an 0-5 start to the season, it seemed in early December like James Johnson's team could be in for a long and arduous season.
But something clicked around Christmas for the Pasco-Hernando Community College men's basketball team, fueling the squad to a six-game winning streak and an 18-6 run at the end of the season, which saw them finish 18-11 overall.
"We've accomplished a lot this year coming together under a new coach," said 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Brice Smith. "We've got a lot of guys who are the same style players but we've overcome it somehow. I think people let go of any selfishness, that's what has made us as good as we are."
Today, the team will begin Region 10 tournament play in Hickory, N.C., where the victor will be crowned District 15 champion and qualify for the National Junior College Athletic Association's national championship. After the success of the school's volleyball team in recent years, Johnson is looking to put a basketball banner up in the Conquistadors' gym.
"I think it's time we get a banner up there, too," Johnson said. "We've got four guys averaging over 10 points per game. We're a team that shares the basketball and plays the right way, so I think we can do it."
To earn that banner, the Conquistadors know they'll have to run the floor well. The team makes its success in the half court, and the players are comfortable matching up size-wise against anyone, as long as they can control the pace of the game. In tournament play, however, Johnson expects to see opposing guards who will push the ball up the floor quickly.
"For our last three practices we've worked on running up and down the floor and being ready for that," he said. "I think this team's chemistry and our ability to play several different styles of defense give us a good advantage though."
PHCC's defense changes on the fly, based on what Johnson calls from the sideline or what team leaders like point guard Alvin Satram feel. The only way they can set up those different defenses is by controlling the game and hustling back on defense, something that Satram said this team can do well enough to win the tournament.
"We have a lot of speed on this team," Satram said, "so we just need to work hard enough and I don't think that we'll lose."