Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ALBANY -- It was a monumental season, one that seized the imagination, and had basketball fans around the Peach State talking about the team from Lippitt Drive in Albany.

By the time it was over, the Tornadoes had put together a 20-0 start and found themselves sitting atop the state Class AAA Top 10 poll for several weeks, playing a brand of basketball they hadn't seen at Monroe for a while -- led by a player who simply took the team and threw it on his back.

The Tornadoes won 25 games and lost to only two teams all year, and both the teams that beat them -- Westover and LaGrange -- went on to the Final Four in Macon, where they fell to state champ Columbia.

Could Monroe be better this season?

"We have an opportunity to be as good. We have a lot of guys with playing experience,'' said Monroe coach Marquis Davis, who admits -- at least up front -- that there is no way to replace Robert Arnold, who led Monroe in just about every statistical category and was named The Albany Herald's Willie Boston Player of the Year for boys basketball. "When you lose a guy who scores 20 points (a game) and is a double-figure rebounder, you're losing a lot. He saved some games for us with late free throws (and a big three-pointer against Terrell County).

"He was a great player."

Davis then added: "We lost a lot in Robert, but hopefully the new guys can step into their roles and make a difference.''

Monroe lost three starters and all were key members of that 20-0 run and Sweet 16 team. Brandon Blakely was Monroe's best outside shooter and 3-point threat, and Brandon Johnson, a Herald All-Metro player, was a force as a rebounder and shot blocker, and averaged a double-double for the season.

But so many players saw time last year, and came up big in big games, that Monroe fans have to feel pretty good going into the season.

And then there's the Rontavious Gilbert Factor.

Gilbert was arguably the best man off the bench in Georgia last season. He was only a sophomore, but made his presence known the minute he walked onto the court. Even as a bench player, Gilbert, a 6-foot-7 junior who plays even bigger than his towering wing span, demanded respect as one of the best shot blockers in the state.

"He averaged five or six blocked shot a game, and he (even) blocked 13 shots in one game," Davis said. "We're expecting big things from Rontavious this year. We worked hard this summer stressing to him that he is going to have to be more offensive-minded.''

Another impact player could be Jabori McGhee, a 6-7 sophomore who had some moments last year as a freshman and appears to be ready to take over the spot left vacant by Johnson, who is now at Albany State, or maybe even fill part of the void left by Arnold, because McGhee is athletic and has an outside shot.

"(McGhee) is a skilled guy who can play multiple positions,'' Davis said.

Gilbert and McGhee could give Monroe one of the best inside games in the state, but the Tornadoes bring back a lot of talent away from the basket, too. Carlos Brown returns at forward, and gives Monroe some unique matchup possibilities, because Brown, a 6-5 senior, can go inside (he averaged more than five rebounds a game) or can bounce outside and hit the 3.

Theodore Hosley, a 6-2 senior, came off the bench last year as well, and played every night. He also started several games for Monroe at the guard spot.

And what about that new guy for the Tornadoes, who's already turning a few heads?

Yes, there's a new face at Monroe in Bamba Dioum, a 6-2 junior guard who moved to Southwest Georgia from Illinois. He will play the other guard spot.

Monroe will have a different look, but so much will be the same, because the Tornadoes don't give up much on defense and have the ability to beat teams inside or out.

This team also comes back on the heels of a bitter one-point loss to LaGrange on the road that ended the season, 45-44, in the Sweet 16. LaGrange went on to play for the state title.

"It definitely makes us hungry,'' Gilbert said. "We came back ready to work hard every day. We can't worry about last year. Last season was last season. This is a brand new season. We know we have a decent team and we're going to work hard to get better. Everyone has to step up and elevate their game.''

That's the idea -- to take last year's memorable season and make the next step.

"We are going for nothing less than the season we had last year,'' Hosley said. "We want to build the program every year. I feel like we have a good team. We have a lot of young guys who are ready to step up.''

That's what last season did for Monroe. It lifted the Tornadoes to new heights -- and now they simply refuse to come back down.