POPLARVILLE – Although well over half of the schedule remains to be played, the Pearl River Community College men have reached the proverbial midpoint of the junior college basketball season – the long Christmas break – as the only undefeated team in the MACJC.
While acknowledging that there is a lot of basketball left to be played, Wildcat head coach Chris Oney likes the path his team has taken to its 7-0 record thus far.
“I’m excited about it,” said Oney, who is in his third season as the coach of the Wildcats.
“In fact, I was excited about this team the first day of classes. I walked into the cafeteria and saw all of the guys sitting together. I knew then that there was a change in attitude, and I knew then that we were going to have a good season.”
He Wildcats were 14-9 last season, but finished 6-8 in the South Division and did not make the MACJC State Tournament. That spurred Oney to overhaul his roster, with only three players returning from a year ago.
Oney pointed to a much-better chemistry among those players, especially the newcomers, as a huge factor in PRCC’s success so far.
“A lot of these guys have been playing together for several years now, both in high school and in AAU ball,” Oney said. “These new guys have meshed well with the guys we had coming back.”
The Wildcats feature four players from the Jackson area who have a long history together, three from Jackson Murrah and the other from Vicksburg High.
So far, the best of the bunch has been freshman guard Eric Thornton Jr., who leads the Wildcats in scoring with 18.6 points per game. Thornton is also averaging 5.4 rebounds a game, an indication that he plays much bigger than his 6-foot-3 size would indicate.
“He’s a competitor,” said Oney. “What makes it better that the guys all like playing with him, and he’s not a selfish player, by any means. He’s become one of our go-to guys, but certainly not the only one.”
Indeed, the Wildcats have also gotten great work from freshman Cedric Brim Jr., who hails from Tupelo, but played his high school ball at nearby Shannon. Brim is only 5-10, but like Thornton, has the ability to get to the rim.
“CJ is so fast, but he’s always under control,” Oney said. “And he can shoot, which makes him that much more dangerous. He’s hard for defenses to match up with because he can do so many things well.”
Brim’s best game was a 23-point effort in the Wildcats’ most recent game, an 87-65 rout of Meridian in their South Division opener on Dec. 4. PRCC also got 9 assists and 6 steals from freshman Jonas James III, another Murrah High product.
“Not only have those kids played together, but they’ve been successful, especially in AAU ball,” said Oney. “They came here knowing what it takes to win, and that’s made my job a lot easier.”
As a team, the Wildcats have been lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of 94.3 points per game, tops in the league. PRCC is shooting 51.8 percent from the field, 73.7 percent from the foul line and are averaging 47 rebounds per game.
As good as the Wildcats have been thus far, Oney knows the toughest challenges lie ahead. The South Division is loaded with quality teams, with Mississippi Gulf Coast, Copiah-Lincoln and Southwest all sporting 8-1 overall records.
“It’s not just coach-talk; it really is just that tough,” said Oney. “There are lot of great coaches, not only in our division, but in the North as well. We’re going to have to be ready to play hard every night from here on. There are no easy games in our league.”
The Wildcats will be back in action on Saturday, Jan. 6, when they host Capital City Prep in a 4 p.m. tipoff. PRCC will host Delgado (La.) on Jan. 9 before jumping back into division play Jan. 11 at Southwest.