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Gifted guards take center stage as Russellville reloads

Patrick Odom is the first to admit it—he coaches Devin Buckhalter a little differently than he does most other players.

And with good reason. Devin Buckhalter is not most other players.

“As far as just general athleticism, he’s got it all,” Odom said of the 6’0, 194-pound Buckhalter, a physically gifted junior guard at Russellville who squats 400 pounds and possesses a 36-inch vertical to go along with a sweet shooting stroke. “He’s got great hands, he’s got good feet and he’s so strong. That was the big thing that changed between his ninth- and tenth-grade year, just the strength level he was able to play at.”

As a freshman reserve two years ago, Buckhalter averaged better than five points a game for the Golden Tigers and showed flashes of being able to do much, much more. But, as players who are both really young and really talented are prone to do, he also drifted on occasion—not loafing, by any stretch, but perhaps throttling down the engines a bit and coasting.

Those occasions did not escape the notice of his head coach.

“I coach him very hard,” said Odom, who is about to begin his 19th year on the sidelines and his third season at RHS. “Because sometimes, as much ability as he has, Devin could get casual from time to time. So I told him, ‘I’m gonna coach you hard, because God’s given you more, and you’ve gotta give it every day.’

“He’s the complete package. It’s hard to say what his ceiling might be. He’s so talented, and then you add the work ethic and the fact that he’s a great kid, too. When you put it all together, it’s a formula for success.”

Those “casual” stretches were far less frequent for Buckhalter last season, when he blossomed into a big-time player capable of burning defenses from virtually anywhere on the floor. He finished second on the team in scoring (13.0 points per game), threes made (34) and free throw shooting (74 percent), topping the 20-point mark on five occasions.

Buckhalter got better as the season progressed, averaging 14.4 points in 14 games after January 1 and 17.3 points in three postseason games, offering hints that his best may be yet to come. That’s good news for the Golden Tigers, who must replace four senior starters off the team that went 18-8 a year ago and won a second straight area tournament title.

“There were a lot of seniors surrounding him last year,” Odom said of Buckhalter, who also averaged 4.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists while reaching double-figures in scoring in 20 of the team’s 26 games. “But the fun part was, as many seniors as we had and as many great players as were on that team, there were two or three nights where Devin was the difference. That was the growth you saw, the maturity.

“Now, with where he is and as many games as he’s played, we expect him to be the difference every night. That’s what you look for when you have good players with the God-given ability that he has.”

Buckhalter is capable of incredibly hot stretches [he torched East Limestone for 25 points in the first three quarters of a key road win last January], but it’s not as though he’ll have to go it alone this year. Fellow junior guard Lucas McNutt also returns after a breakout sophomore season in which he buried a team-best 39 threes and shot 75 percent (45-for-60) from the foul line. Like his classmate and backcourt partner, McNutt also flourished down the stretch, averaging 10.4 points in 14 games after January 1 and finishing the season at 8.2 points per game.

It’s not a stretch to say that Russellville probably wouldn’t have won the area tournament without McNutt, who came off the bench to nail six threes and score 20 points in a first-round win over Lawrence County and then made two technical free throws with less than five seconds remaining to give the Golden Tigers an 83-81 victory over East Limestone in the final.

“There were a couple of games last year where Lucas was the difference for us,” Odom said, “with his ability to make shots and to make big shots in big moments. Confidence is something every coach talks about. As a player, you need it, but in order to get it you have to earn it in those types of moments.

“People ask me why I picked Lucas to shoot those free throws, and I tell them, ‘Because I knew he would make them.’ That’s the confidence I have in him, and in Devin, too. They know my expectations. Like I’ve told both of those guys, when you walk out on the floor feeling good about yourself and believing in what you can do, it rubs off on everybody else.”

Odom said last week that Buckhalter is fully recovered from the broken foot he suffered in late August, an injury that necessitated surgery and ultimately cost him the entire football season.

“He has been cleared, and he’s been practicing full-speed,” Odom said last Friday. “He’s looking good. He looks like Devin Buckhalter should look, and that’s helped me sleep a whole lot better.”

Full seasons of health and consistent production from Buckhalter and McNutt are crucial to Russellville’s hopes of winning a third consecutive area championship. The only other player with significant varsity experience is junior forward Caden Parker, who averaged 2.3 points per game in limited minutes off the bench last season. The Golden Tigers have five seniors (guards Brock Malone and Houston Kitterman, athletic forward Logan Jones, and post players Calen Bragwell and Danny Hernandez) on the roster, but all of them are essentially rookies when it comes to the varsity level.

“The interesting part of our roster, and something that I’ve never really had before, is that our five seniors are not the most experienced players on our team,” said Odom, who spent 14 seasons at Shoals Christian and two at Belgreen prior to arriving at Russellville in 2015. “They’ve been in our program, so they have an understanding of the system and the terminology and all that. They’ve been with me since I’ve been here, but there’s not a lot of varsity experience there. We’ve gotta have a lot of those guys step in and play well for us.”

Malone and Kitterman, each of whom moved up from the B-team late last season, will be counted to provide ball-handling and perimeter shooting.

“The more those guys can handle the ball,” Odom said, “the more that will allow us to play Devin and Lucas off the ball and give them more opportunities to score. We’re gonna look a little perimeter-oriented at times, but we don’t really have a choice.”

Odom’s first team at Russellville, with 6’6 Adonis Bailey and 6’5 Austin Stidham down low, was by far the biggest he’s ever coached. Stidham returned last year and averaged 11.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game as a true back-to-the-basket post player, but now he’s gone, too, and the Golden Tigers are depending on the athleticism and energy of Jones, the physicality of the 6’2 Bragwell and the work ethic of Hernandez to fill the void in the paint.

Odom’s free-flowing, up-tempo style is built on getting defensive stops and rebounding the basketball, which begs the question: Who’s going to rebound the basketball?

“Everybody,” Odom said. “I say that because that’s been a very common focus point for us every day. This team has to team-rebound. Last year, we had a guy in Stid who was good enough to control the boards by himself. That allowed other guys to leak out in transition. This team can’t do that. We have to team-rebound. Everybody is responsible for it.

“I do think Calen Bragwell will be a very important guy for us when it comes to that, though. He’s not 6’6 like Stid, but he’s strong, and he’s a good athlete. He’s gotta provide that physical presence for us in the paint.

“We want to get out and play in transition, but you’ve gotta rebound to run, and that’s gonna take a great effort from everybody.”

Rugged freshman Brooks Scott, who started all season at inside linebacker for the Golden Tiger football team, should provide immediate help in the paint, and fellow ninth-grader Chandler Dyas brings more perimeter shooting and scoring to the table.

The Golden Tigers are scheduled to tip off their season on Monday, November 20 at Colbert County. They will once again battle Brooks, East Limestone and Lawrence County in the Class 5A, Area 16 race.

“As far as area goes, we feel like it should be ours, because it has been ours,” Odom said. “But there’s a lot of work to go achieve that. Everybody else returns more starters than we do. It’s gonna be a big challenge.

“If we play with competitive character and bring that element the way it has to be brought every day, then we feel like we can compete for an area championship. That’s within our grasp.”

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