Despite a lack of experience, Triceratops
men’s basketball off to 8-0 start
CLEVELAND, NOV. 29 — This shouldn’t be happening.
Of the 15 members of Cuyahoga Community College’s men’s basketball team, 14 have the label NPCE – no prior college experience – attached to them. So how can a squad made up mostly of freshmen who’ve never played together post an 8-0 record in the opening of the 2022-23 season?
What makes the season’s start almost unbelievable is that Tri-C had no college basketball whatsoever — women’s or men’s — in 2020-21 and in 2021-22 due to Covid-19. That meant this team and its coach had to start from Ground Zero.
So what accounts for the team’s early success?
It begins with a dedicated coach and good recruiting. It continues with skilled players, excellent execution, and a spirit of accountability, both on the court and in classes. Add in one veteran to the mix as well. And while it’s difficult to forecast just how far this team can go, the Triceratops are an exciting, surprising and fun squad to watch.
CONNECTIONS, TO COMMITMENTS, TO CULTURE
It’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Tri-C men’s head basketball coach Aaron Nixon is calling from the gym in Cleveland Heights, where he’s watching and recruiting at a high school tournament. For Coach Nixon, good recruiting was the foundational building block for the team. He was using his contacts and knowledge as soon as he was hired in late 2021 to be the coach.
“it’s important to stay connected in the coaching ranks, and I was fortunate to use contacts well when putting this team together,” says Nixon. “An example is Melvin Brown, the man who operates Oakville Prep Academy in Ontario. He’s a Tri-C alumnus, and that was helpful to me in recruiting Jordan Persad (the team’s only sophomore) and Ronik Grewal from Canada to join us.”
Coach Nixon traveled to Dayton to watch the “Flying to the Hoop” tournament, a holiday event, in 2021. Many top basketball programs from Ohio and other states compete there, and from it Nixon recruited and landed Dayton Flyght Academy’s Tallice Landers and Tyler Montague.
“When you go to these high school tournaments and the coaches there get to know you, it helps open doors,” Nixon says. “You see a lot of talent there, and that enables you to kill a lot of birds with one stone so to speak.”
Once Nixon assembled the team, he began instilling his own culture, along with a defensive and offensive philosophy with the players. Tri-C plays a tenacious man-to-man defense, and mixes in traps and presses to fluster its opponents and create turnovers.
Tri-C employs a motion offense. “All the players have learned it or a variation of it in their younger years, and it was easy to install as we didn’t have a lot of time or past experience together anyway,” Nixon explains. The offense employs a lot of screens and cuts, and players must have excellent dribbling skills and commit to executing screens and cutting to the rim.
“There’s nothing fancy about the offense, but fortunately we have a lot of good ball handlers and cutters,” Nixon says, perhaps as an understatement. Tri-C is averaging more than 91 points a game, due in part to its offensive execution and in part to the players’ commitment to the culture Nixon has instilled.
“We get baskets off turnovers and off forcing our opponents to take bad shots,” Nixon continues. “We use traps and presses to switch up on defense, confuse the opponent, and to give us a better chance of controlling the tempo of the game.”
TENACIOUS AND ENERGETIC
Tri-C Metro Gym, November 22: Coming off a Triceratops basket, a Schoolcraft College forward goes
to in-bound the basketball. Tall opposing players are blanketing Schoolcraft’s guards,
and another Tri-C player is guarding the in-bounds pass. Schoolcraft’s pass goes astray.
Persad picks it up and lays it up for two easy points for the home team.
Followers of the Triceratops use a common word to describe the team, tenacious.
“The one thing that sticks out the most for me is our tenacity on defense,” says Anthony Cipollone, executive director of athletics at Tri-C. “The constant pressure we put on a team on the defensive side of the court, in conjunction with our transition offense and the number of players we can rotate in, should make us a formidable opponent for most of our schedule.”
Jeff Lansky, the play-by-play announcer for Tri-C sports, concurs. “This team did a great job of bouncing back from a slow second-half start in its game against Schoolcraft (which Tri-C won, 81-68),” Lansky says. “(Ronik) Grewal made a big impact off the bench with his hustle and the two three-pointers that he made. Tri-C plays a fast-pace, tenacious style of basketball, and that’s what Coach Nixon wants out of his team.”
Concurring is Persad, the team’s sole college basketball veteran. “What’s surprised me about this team is the energy we have,” he says. ”The guys are always so vibrant and filled with energy. It is infectious.”
Mac Petty knows a thing or two about coaching basketball. A member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, Petty notched 497 victories while coaching at Wabash College for 35 seasons. That tenure included an NCAA Division III national championship (1982), multiple conference championships, seven All Americans, and seven inductees into the Wabash Athletics Hall of Fame. Now retired, Petty is also familiar with Ohio college basketball. He hails from Wooster, was an All State basketball and baseball player for the Generals, and frequently brought the Wabash Little Giant basketballers to tournaments and regular-season games in Ohio.
“As a coach, you are hopeful for a good melting of the talent, and Coach Nixon has done that,” Petty comments. “It’s early in the season, and the determination of how the season goes will depend on how well this team handles losses or disappointments.
“Some of this (the team’s disposition) will depend on the coach, how leadership is given out, and how the players receive that,” Petty continues. “Controlling egos is a delicate balance, and accepting roles on a team allows for success. If teammates accept the leadership (of Coach Nixon and Sophomore Persad) and don’t allow competitiveness within the team to take hold, it can be a decisive factor in even greater successes.”
“The culture that Coach Nixon brings to our team is truly amazing, but we’re not perfect,” he says. “I’ve been happily surprised at how well we have dealt with the adversity (that we’ve faced) in our first eight games. It hasn’t always been pretty. We’ve been behind in some games, and we’ve had our challenges, but our ability to overcome them says a lot about the guys in our locker room and our coaching staff.”
VETERAN PLAYER IN LEADERSHIP ROLE
Nixon knew he’d need some experience on his roster, so he reached out to Persad, a 6-1-point guard who’s court-wise beyond his 21 years of life. A native of Canada, Persad’s father is from Trinidad and Tobago and Persad enjoys dual citizenship. He has past experience as a junior playing in the NBA and FIBA’s “Basketball Without Borders” camp in 2017. He was an outstanding player for Trinidad & Tobago in the 2016 U15 Centrobasket Championships, leading the tournament with a 35 points per game (ppg) average.
In Toronto at Oakville Prep, Persad averaged 23.5 ppg, 8.3 assists per game, 9.5 rebounds and 3 steals per contest his senior season. He played for one season in Missouri at Moberly Area Community College before transferring to Tri-C. He has been a squad leader on many of his past teams.
But in 2022-23, Persad is THE team leader. He is taking on a lot of responsibility for the Triceratops.
“I’ve worked tirelessly and sacrificed all my life to be ready for this opportunity,” Persad says. “talking the guys through rough patches, keeping everyone composed, preparing them for what’s to come – those are all part of my job.”
As the point guard in the motion offense, Persad is up top as the “trigger man” with the basketball. He’s looking for screeners and cutters, and his initial pass helps determine the success of the offensive possession for Tri-C.
Persad also steps up and makes baskets too. Against Schoolcraft, play-by-play announcer Lansky recalls the point guard’s leadership.
“Tri-C went on a run that featured multiple three-point baskets from Persad and (Tallice) Landers, and a couple of fast-break dunks from Tyishawn Smiley (Cleveland, Glenville HS),” he says. “Those runs are like a broadcaster’s dream.”
OPPORTUNISTIC, AND HOW FAR CAN THEY GO?
Tri-C Metro Gym, November 22: A Schoolcraft guard brings the ball into a corner of the front court.
Suddenly he’s double teamed, seeing nothing but arms and legs surrounding him. He tosses an
errant pass, one which Tri-C’s Tyishawn Smiley anticipated. Smiley intercepts, races
down the court, and ends the play with a slam dunk. This happened multiple times
in Cuyahoga Community College’s 81-68 victory.
“We have a lot of terrific talent on this team,” Coach Nixon says. “At 6-7, Smiley has great court sense and instincts, and he’s not the only one like that playing for us.”
Another strong contributor to the Triceratops is Nekhi Smith (Cincinnati, Taft HS) who was named Ohio Community College Athletic Association men’s basketball player of the week for Nov. 14 – 21. Smith registered back-to-back double-doubles in averaging 19.5 points and 11.5 rebounds as the men’s squad tallied two triumphs in mid-November. He exploded for 27 points and 13 rebounds in 25 minutes against ISA Academy, after a stellar 12-point, 10-rebound effort at Community Christian. Smith also crashed the boards hard, accumulating 12 of his 23 rebounds on the offensive glass.
Freshman Devln Hald (Wooster, Wooster HS) leads the team in scoring with a 17.4 points per game average, but Smith, Persad and Smiley are also in double figures. But many nights the Triceratops will play 11 or 12 in their contests.
Nixon believes in sharing the minutes among many players. Only four players are in for more than 20 minutes a game – none for 25 or more minutes – and another four players are competing from 10 to 20 minutes per contest. Four more are averaging 5 to 9 minutes per game. Fresh legs also wear down opposing teams.
Tri-C is averaging 91 points and bringing down more than 38 rebounds a game, outpacing its opponents on average by 14 points and 9 rebounds a contest. The Triceratops are making an average of 9 three-point baskets a game, and notching nearly 16 assists and nearly 8 steals each time out.
What’s the top end ability of this team? Persad has a goal in mind.
“I see part of my role here to get this team into the NJCAA National Tournament,” he says. “I truly believe that, and the guys believe it too. We have to utilize every single day to improve and grow. But hanging banners is our goal and my goal.”
While it’s too early to compare this squad to Cuyahoga Community’s 2004 national championship team, the team’s outstanding play is being noticed. Hundreds of fans showed up to see the Triceratops vs. Schoolcraft on Nov. 22. Pretty soon everyone will know who these guys are.
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Current NCJAA Division II “Top Twenty” basketball poll (Tri-C is receiving votes in the poll)
Link to news and information about the Triceratops Men’s Basketball Team
NOTEWORTHY: Cuyahoga Community College men’s basketball team is the winningest team among all men’s basketball programs in the Cleveland/Northeast Ohio area. Here’s a listing (as of 11/28)
Cuyahoga Community College 8-0
John Carroll 5-0
Mount Union 5-0
Lakeland Community College 5-1
Lorain County Community College 4-1
Kent State University 5-2
Cleveland State 4-3
University of Akron 3-3
Baldwin Wallace 2-2
Lake Erie 2-3
Notre Dame (Ohio) 2-3
HEAR HIM HERE!
Coach Nixon answered a few questions from EyeOnCleveland founder Professor John Kerezy just prior to the Schoolcraft College game on November 22. Here is that brief podcast:
SEE THEM HERE!
Want to watch Triceratops Basketball? Here’s the Boxcast “Stream” from the women’s and men’s games of November 22, 2022 vs. Schoolcraft College. This is a Cuyahoga Community College Student Production Office production, and MJS 2070 students John Kilroy, Ryan Bernstein, and Greg Spitzig are also on the broadcast.