Sacred Heart Cathedral boys’ basketball coach Darrell Barbour has said it so many times this season — when the guards are on, the Irish play at another level.
Everyone expects big games out of standout senior forwards Taylor Johns and Joshua Fox, but the Irish are at their best when their main rotation of four guards — juniors Khalil James and Herman Pratt, senior Tyler Petroni, and sophomore DeOndre Otis — are firing on all cylinders.
All four players are multidimensional, but they gravitate to specific roles and thrive in them.
The Shooter: Tyler Petroni
Like so many outside shooters, Petroni is streaky. Through much of the season, the 6-foot-1 shooting guard has been off, but his best games have been in the postseason, most notably against Center in the Division III Northern California quarterfinals, where he led the Irish with 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the floor.
On that night and against Miramonte in the prior round, when he was 4-of-6 from 3-point range, early success got Petroni on a roll.
“For him, it opens up a whole can of worms,” Barbour said about Petroni hitting early shots.
“He’s good enough to take the ball to the basket and people just assume that he can only catch and shoot, but he’s more than that.”
His value and impact is not only about putting the ball through the net, but about the way opposing teams play defense on the Irish.
When the outside shots are falling, Johns and Fox can capitalize inside, without the burden of double teams.
“A lot of times when we pass it into the post, teams try to cheat,” Petroni said. “All of us make sure we can hit that shot to keep them honest.”
The Big-game Ball-handler: Khalil James
James played on the varsity as a sophomore, but when last season’s starting point guard Zach Tapel was knocked out of commission with a football injury, the wiry junior was thrust into the starting lineup.
“I was looking forward to playing a lot this season and playing together with Zach,” James said. “After I heard he got hurt, I knew I had to step it up.”
He added strength in the offseason and with early experience has directed the Irish offense skillfully in some of the most important games of the season.
At 5-foot-8, he’s far from intimidating, but plays fearlessly, sometimes driving into the lane against players a foot taller than him.
His nickname, “Big-game James” has suited him well this season, but in the biggest game of the season to date against Bishop O’Dowd in the NorCal championship game on Saturday, he was hampered with foul trouble throughout.
The fine line for James is playing aggressively, but not out of control, to avoid a repeat performance against Alemany, watching from the bench.
“I didn’t like sitting on the bench, watching my teammates play their hearts out,” James said. “It was difficult, because I wanted to be out there with them.”
The Energizer: Herman Pratt
Barbour has tried his best to get Pratt to play at varying speeds, but that’s part of the beauty of Pratt’s game. He never takes his foot off the gas pedal.
Pratt’s statistics don’t jump out in every game, but his impact defensively is immeasurable. In so many games this season, he has guarded the best player on the floor, regardless of position.
In practice, he doesn’t shy away from guarding Fox or Johns, both several inches taller than him, with plenty of physicality.
Again on Saturday he will be asked to guard Alemany’s best player, 6-foot-4 Nevada-bound small forward Marqueze Coleman, who is averaging 21.5 points this season.
With Herman it’s not an issue of how tall the other guy is,” Barbour said. “He’s tough enough to guard guys in the post.”
Right now, the plan is to have him on No. 1 [Coleman]. I don’t know guys’ names, we just know them by numbers.”
He wears his defensive responsibilities as a badge of honor, but he will also make an impact on the offensive end, be it a key rebound or a series of cold-blooded 3s.
“I’m mostly a defensive player, but coach Barbour wants me to take some of that aggressiveness to the offensive side, too,” Pratt said.
The Young Backup: DeOndre Otis
Otis wanted to play varsity this season as a sophomore. He could have been “The Man” on junior varsity, but took the challenge to play with the big boys.
Still, at times he looks very much like a sophomore, playing an accelerated game when the Irish want him to make calm and sound decisions.
He has played solid minutes all season, but was pushed to play more than normal in the NorCal title game due to James’ foul trouble. He responded with one of the biggest shots of his career, a 3-pointer just before the third-quarter buzzer to extend the Irish lead to 46-40.
“That was a momentum shift and it helped his psyche,” Barbour said. “He has pressed at times this season. He’s not afraid to take those shots, but what’s important for him is getting into the flow of the game. It’s not easy coming off the bench.”
Otis, like Pratt and James, also represents the future — a future he hopes will include a return to the state’s greatest stage.
“It was big to be in the game, because some really good players don’t get to do something like that as a 10th-grader,” Otis said. “I did it and now I have two years to do it again.”
WHAT: CIF Division III state championship
WHEN: Saturday, 2:45 p.m.
WHERE: Power Balance Pavilion, Sacramento
TV: CSN California