At the end of December, the South Puget Sound Community College men’s basketball team was 8-6.
“We weren’t good, but we were dangerous,” coach Aaron Landon joked.
Heading into Wednesday’s 8 p.m. game against visiting Grays Harbor, the Clippers have assured themselves of a third consecutive season with at least 21 wins, and can clinch a second straight Northwest Athletic Conference West title with a win over the last-place Chokers.
A timely defensive change made it happen more often after the barely .500 start.
When assistant coach Vernell Willingham was promoted to director of athletics at SPSCC, Landon reached out to a player he’d coached while he was an assistant at Concordia University in Portland as a replacement.
Tyler Velasquez had moved on to a job in the video room of the Portland Trail Blazers, but jumped at a chance to get back into on-the-floor coaching.
“Last year we played mostly half-court defense. It was getting stale,” Landon said. “We were sitting around the hotel on a road trip and Tyler suggested we start pressing.”
The result has been a 13-1 mark since the change. A team that was centered in 2016-17 on the considerable offensive skills of Luke Chavez (now leading Saint Martin’s University in scoring at 16.0 per game) and Dez Stoudamire (a double-figure scorer now at Black Hills State) has become a defensive-minded squad.
The Clippers (21-7, 12-1) lead the NWAC in scoring defense, holding opponents to 72.8 points per game in a league known for high-powered offenses.
“Our defense is clicking. We’ve made some adjustments and we’re holding ourselves more accountable,” said Wes Reynolds, a 6-foot-4 North Thurston graduate who is second in the NWAC in rebounding at 10 per game.
“Wes rebounds at an elite level,” Landon said. “He’s embraced that role and the need to be our rim protector.”
“I got a lot stronger and in better shape over the summer,” Reynolds said. “I try to play with a high motor and make sure we get some extra possessions.”
Though SPSCC recruits throughout the West — with leading scorer A.J. Hodges (17.7 points per game) hailing from Utah and athletic freshman DeMonte Mollloy (13.4) coming north from Portland — local products Nolan Black, an Olympia graduate, and Reynolds have become team captains in their second year.
Black, a 6-6 forward, started every game last season but has come off the bench in 2017-18.
“He’s given up a lot for the sake of the team,” Landon said. “He’s shown leadership and sacrifice, taken on a blue collar role. He’s crazy loud on the bench and brings a ton of energy when he goes into the game.”
Black, who still averages 14 minutes per game, trusts the process.
“The adjustment has gone smoothly. Coach is putting us in position to win,” he said.
Landon believes the opposite is true, that his second-year players are the key.
“When you watch college basketball on CBS on a Saturday afternoon, they always point out which teams have quality seniors,” he said. “At this level, sophomores are your seniors and we’ve had some good ones. With eight or 10 new guys every year, you need the sophomores to push the younger kids, show them what it takes to be successful.”
Black and Reynolds have provided leadership.
Landon believes Hodges should be “the MVP of the league” and Californian Dion Hamilton has contributed off the bench as the Clippers have moved to within a win of the division title.
Freshman Hunter Sipe, another local product from Olympia, pitches in another 10.7 points per game and shoots 44.5 percent from 3-point range.
SPSCC was unbeaten in league play until dropping a 62-59 game to second-place Lower Columbia on Thursday.
“It seemed like a major blow that night,” Reynolds said. “But it was a wake-up call. Better to lose then than in the conference tournament.”
“We need to make sure we’re peaking in March,” Landon agreed.
The NWAC tournament will be played in Everett, March 8-11 and March 17-18.
“We learned last season the turnaround is so intense,” Landon said. “You’ve got to have your team ready to play back-to-back games. Despite the success we’ve had the last few years, because we started out slowly this year, we still feel like we’re underdogs.
“We’re playing with house money.”