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PREP HOOPS PREVIEW: Is this finally the year the Tornadoes go all the way?

Monroe big man and two-time Herald Super 6er Rantavious Gilbert, right, hopes to lead the Tornadoes all the way to Macon this year after Monroe has fielded strong teams in recent seasons, but fell short of its goal each time. Gilbert, who averaged 10 points, 10 rebounds and almost five blocks a year ago, will team with fellow Super 6er Jabari McGhee to reach for a state championship. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Monroe big man and two-time Herald Super 6er Rantavious Gilbert, right, hopes to lead the Tornadoes all the way to Macon this year after Monroe has fielded strong teams in recent seasons, but fell short of its goal each time. Gilbert, who averaged 10 points, 10 rebounds and almost five blocks a year ago, will team with fellow Super 6er Jabari McGhee to reach for a state championship. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY -- Is this the year, the year they've been waiting for at Monroe?

It could be.

The Tornadoes have had one of the best Class AAA boys basketball programs in the state the last couple of years, only to fall short in the playoffs.

But that could change this season.

"This is our year,'' Herald Super 6er Rantavious Gilbert said. "We just have to prove it.''

Gilbert, a 6-foot-8 senior center, and Jabari McGhee, a 6-7 junior who is a force inside, are both Super 6ers, two players who can take over a game on either end of the court. Both averaged double-doubles last year, and they not only could be better as individuals, but -- and here's the scary thought for Monroe's opponents -- they could be better as a pair.

"They've played together the last two years, and they are beginning to really gel with each other,'' Monroe coach Marquis Davis said. "That will make it tough on teams. Their chemistry is better, and they both had a great summer.''

Gilbert averaged roughly 10 points and 10 rebounds a game last year, but he blocked more than five shots a game and altered about every shot that came inside the paint. McGhee is a scoring machine. He averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds a game, but his scoring average could shoot into the 20-a-night range this season.

"In our region nobody else has two guys their size,'' Davis said. "If one is not playing well, I'm sure the other will be. But what I saw this summer was both of them playing well, and both getting better playing together.''

But there's a lot more to Monroe other than the two Tornado Towers.

Davis has turned the program around in his first four years at the school, and now, in Year 5, he has players who have been in his system since they entered Monroe as freshmen.

That alone might be the edge Monroe needs. There are nine seniors to anchor this team, and all of them have grown up in green and gold.

"This is the first group of seniors that grew up together and came through our program,'' said Davis, who had freshmen when he started and has seen additions to his team the past two years. "I think chemistry is going to be the key. The last two or three years we've had good teams, but this group has been playing together for so long, and they know each other.''

Monroe has two Super 6ers, and six players who could step up and become super.

Davis can mix and match the other three spots on the court with six versatile players. Daryl Hines, a 5-11 senior point guard, will probably be running the offense. He's quick and smart, and Bamba Dioum, a 6-2 senior, returns at the 2 guard where he started at times last year.

Daniel House, a 6-2 senior guard, started at times last year, and Devine Noel, who starts both ways for Monroe's playoff football team, is expected to contribute after he is finished on the football field. Jonathon Morine, a 5-11 senior, also saw a lot of playing time last year, and Nicholas Plummer, a 6-3 senior, could emerge as a factor this season. Plummer had a big summer and looked like a veteran in Monroe's scrimmage win against Class AAAAA Tift County when Monroe romped, 75-46.

That gives Davis six options -- and a deep bench.

"We have a nice crop of guards,'' Davis said. "On any given night we can mix and match with them.''

Monroe went 23-5 and won the Region 1-AAA title last year, but was upset in the first round of the playoffs by Westside, Augusta in a game that still stings.

"We talk about that loss to Westside Augusta every day,'' Davis said. "That's going to be our motivation this year after losing in the first round last year. The play I remember in that game was just before halftime; they hit a 3-pointer that gave them the lead. That gave them the momentum in the second half.''

That image may linger at Monroe, but it helps fire up this year's team.

"I don't know what it is,'' Gilbert said. "It's like we have a first- and second-round curse. That's what it seems like. But we will have to get past that this year.

"I think about that loss (to Westside) all the time. I think about how one team destroyed us at our house. It really hurt. I know it makes us work harder this year. I can see the difference. I can see the intensity. We are a lot more hungry, and we have a lot more drive.''

Monroe's success over the last two years, and the return of so many seniors with high expectations, will no doubt put a target on the Tornadoes' back, but as Davis said, "That's OK with us."

And his kids feel the same way.

"We always have a target,'' McGhee said. "We have to keep working hard to earn their respect, and keep everyone's respect.''

Gilbert then added: "If people are talking about us, we must be doing something right.''

And the consensus is this could be the year.

"There's something about this team that's just right,'' McGhee said. "We've been playing together for so long. We know each other, and we're hungry. We want this to be our year. We just have to prove it.''