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The Manning High School boys basketball team soared to great heights last season. The Monarchs won 23 games and made it all the way to the Final Four of the 3A state playoffs before their season came to a close.
Now Manning finds itself in a very different position as three of their top four scorers from last year's team graduated. Their other leading scorer, Corey Graham, is out for the season after injuring his knee during football season.
Despite the massive loss of production, Monarch head coach Rolando Shuler isn't panicking.
"We've got a couple of guys returning from last year's team. We had 18 last year, and we've got eight or nine coming back, so we've got guys who are familiar with what we do and we have some kids who were waiting for Israel (Brown) or Darias (Williams) or Corey not to be there," said Shuler, whose team was ranked fourth in 3A in the South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association preseason poll. "We're looking for a really big season from Leondria Nelson. I think we'll be about the same team or a little bit better this year."
Nelson is Manning's biggest producer from last season that will see the court in 2019-20. The Monarch senior scored 6.4 points per game last year and was also the team leader in assists and was second in steals. Shuler thinks Nelson is primed for an excellent senior season.
"He's like a LeBron James- or Magic Johnson-type player, because he's always ready to make the right plays, not necessarily the play for him," said Shuler. "When you have those other guys like Corey and Israel, he'll get them the ball, but with them out of the way it forces him to do a little bit more and we know he can."
Manning will have a number of different contributors this season. Guard Xavier Hicks returns to the lineup after averaging 4.4 points. Freshman Justin Daniles will take over as the point guard and has impressed Shuler so far.
Another big addition will be junior Jaquan Fletcher, who is transferring to Manning from Delaware. Shuler thinks he will be able to make a big splash once he gets more familiar with the Monarchs' system.
"He's very aggressive, very quick with the ball," said Shuler. "He's just got to catch up with our system. We're just taking it day by day with him, especially on defense, our defense is way more complex."
In the paint, Trenton Brown and Aaron Smith return at forward. Another key addition for Manning will be down low, as 6-foot-6-inch freshman Jeh' Qwauyn Hilton should make an instant impact.
Manning is stocked top to bottom with athletes, and Shuler plans to take advantage of the athleticism he has down low. The Monarch aren't as worried about positions in the lineup as they are about making plays with whoever is on the court.
"We do that all the time, unless we've got a certain player we're facing down low," said Shuler on playing position-less basketball. "And when we get the ball in the fast break, we don't have positions, we just get down the court. Unless we've got one of those big guys like a Xephen Richardson, we have him doing stuff down low because he's a really big boy."
Manning's lineup may be filled with names you're not as familiar with, but that doesn't mean the Monarchs are looking to go into rebuilding mode. Shuler led his team to the Final Four last season, and the Monarchs - who enter the season ranked fourth in 3A in the preseason SCBCA polls - expect to be back in that game again this year.
"We've got eight kids that are coming back that played in those big games," said Shuler. "When we got back to school that Monday (after the Final Four) and watched the film together, everybody said, 'We're going back.' So that's our expectation. Our expectation is to get back there. We don't want to look back; we've got the talent here and we can do some good things."
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