Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
Bucky McMillan and his Mountain Brook High school basketball team secured Mountain Brook's 4th state championship in the last 6 years last Saturday. The 34 year old, 10th year coach and his team dominated the Final Four at the BJCC's Legacy Arena Thursday and Saturday. On Thursday, the great Trendon Watford poured in 22 points and pulled down 11 boards, Lior Berman added 13, and Sean Elmore chipped in 11 in a 70-42 Spartans victory over Central-Phenix City. On Saturday Night, Watford was at it again accumulating 26 points and 12 boards along with 5 blocks and Elmore was 6 of 10 from trifecta totaling 20 points and also pulling down 8 rebounds in the Spartans' 73-40 victory over McGill-Toolen of Mobile to clinch the state championship in Class 7A.
It was a tremendous performance by McMillan's remarkable program. Sophomore Paulie Stramaglia, playing with mono, played a masterful game on Saturday at the point dishing out 5 assists. But as McMillan stresses, it's not just about Trendon or Sean or any single player. These guys are selfless, team players, all 12 who played Saturday Night. Trendon, a junior, is a top 10 player in the country for 2019, and will be a McDonald's All American if he performs like he did this season, and is a coveted recruit. He is already getting major attention from Alabama, Kentucky, Kansas, all the big names. But one thing that goes unnoticed about Watford's game, and it's a characteristic that permeates throughout this team, is his passing. He's a phenomenal passer. Elmore is playing at North Alabama next season which is moving up to Division 1 and will play in the Atlantic Sun Conference with the likes of Lipscomb out of Nashville and Florida Gulf Coast. Lipscomb just secured the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on Sunday with a 108-96 victory over Florida Gulf Coast and look poised to make some noise next week in the Big Dance. Hamp Sission, one of the most accomplished student-athletes you'll find in the country, is going to Furman to play quarterback on a scholarship. Britton Johnson, the great 3 point shooter for Mountain Brook, who set the all time record at the High School for 3 pointers made, is looking at some basketball options. The other senior, William Lineberry, will be looking at his basketball options as well. All four, Elmore, Sisson, Johnson and Linberry are highly accomplished students as well as outstanding basketball players. Watford, Stramaglia and Berman will all be back along with another group of talented players for the 2018-19 team.
I talked to Bucky once again yesterday morning to go over his team's sensational performance this season and what this 4th state championship means to him, his players, his coaches, his managers, and his community. Here's my conversation with Bucky.
DW: How you doing?
Bucky: I'm sleep deprived, we've had so much fun the last couple of days. It's been great.
DW: Did you get much sleep during the Final Four?
Bucky: We slept more in the tournament than we did after. We were all so happy, it was all such a rush. We have a big group every year who goes to Mafioso, every parent, the team and once the players leave, we stay till 4 AM. It's just fun. Everybody that's ever been associated with our program is there.
DW: I know it's the 4th state title in six years, how does it measure against the others, how special is this one?
Bucky: I just felt that if this group didn't go win it, there would have been something wrong with athletics almost because they did everything right all the time. So I couldn't imagine the story ending any differently than them winning it. I would have been so confused and so hurt really for those guys because they deserved it as much as any team I've ever been around. I'm not just talking about as a coach, I've been in athletics since I was 5 years old. I played soccer, baseball, football, basketball and this is the best team I've ever been associated with. I started focusing on basketball when I was 13 and played on 3 or 4 different teams in the summer and played in college (at Birmingham Southern where he was a standout), and there's never been a team that I've been around like this team. it's truly amazing. They're obviously great on the court, but they're also so unselfish. They're such cool people. They're all best friends. They're all high character people. They just don't play for themselves, they play for the coaches, the managers, they play for Mountain Brook. Every time you look on the floor, you say, those guys are making the right play for Mountain Brook High School. Every one of those guys on our team could argue that they could get a shot off every time and they probably could. They're such talented players. You see guys sacrifice. Maybe one guy scores 22 points in a game then another time scores 11 or 10 for our team to be great. Trendon could probably score 45 points a game, seriously. And our team would probably not win a state championship. He scores 25, gets 4 or 5 blocks, 5 assists and 15 rebounds if that's what it'll take. Maybe he'll score 17 a game because they're doubling him and he passes it out to the open man. You look at Paulie Stramaglia, our point guard, Alex Washington, the sacrifices they make. Paulie Stramaglia probably leads Mountain Brook High School in assists for a single season all time in the high school. It's just pass after pass after pass just getting everybody the ball. And Britton Johnson, I told you about him, he holds the single season 3 point record at Mountain Brook High School. Now I think he ended with around 115, 120 3's and the next guy was right around 90 (Mario Stramaglia, Paulie's older brother). He broke it by nearly 30 and shot 46% from 3, and yet there are games he won't even take a 3 because there's a mismatch inside. Their decision to play the way they play and to have no selfishness comes from within them and their character. So I'm just really elated for this group. This is a team our community and our school should be proud of and is proud of. And it's also a group of guys that should be saluted throughout the state for their accomplishments on a national level representing our state. When we went and played in these national tournaments, I couldn't imagine a team better at representing this state. And we won the Final Four games by around 55 points. If you look at the Civic Center, that just doesn't happen in the highest classification. I'm just so happy for them. That's why I haven't slept, I'm just so elated for them. I've won a championship before, but this team has never won a championship before. What I'm saying is, you hear Nick Saban saying it, there's no such thing as back to back, there is, but not for this team. This team is a new team, they had different players. We had a lot of the same players, but it was a new team. This is the first one for this particular team. So I'm really excited for this group, I really am.
DW: Talk about Paulie's effort with the mono.
Bucky: I was talking with my dad. I haven't been able to talk with him about the game. He's been so happy too. The effort in the game was so incredible. To have a team that was playing that hard even when they were up by 30 points. They played like they're down by 4 or 5 with a minute or 2 left. You see Paulie out there playing with mono diving on the floor, making all the hustle plays and he came on to the sideline and would be throwing up in the trash can. He did it all game long. I thought they were going to have to give him IV's at halftime because they were worried about him because of dehydration, he couldn't stop throwing up. You see him go right back in there and make those effort plays like there is no tomorrow, that's pretty cool. And that's a 10th grader and he's playing like it's the last game he's going to play and he's got 2 years of basketball left. And this is incredible, I've had some Division 1 schools and schools from all over asking about him. We're going to see him develop over the next couple of years. You look at the point guards in the state coming back these next 2 years, I'll take Paulie with anybody. He's very special. Another thing people don't know about Paulie, because he's a great passer, he throws it when nobody seems them coming, he shoots 42 percent from 3 as well. So people are like, why doesn't he shoot more? I say Paulie's going to shoot when he knows he's going to make it. That's the best talent of them all. When you know you're going to make it, you shoot those. He's had a great year, but he's also going to have a really good junior and senior year.
DW: You said Trendon if he scores 45, you guys can't win state. What is the difference between him scoring 45 and not winning and him scoring 25 and 12 boards and you guys winning?
Bucky: I said not necessarily that we would lose, I said we probably wouldn't have been able to make the runs we have made. There may be a game where he needed to score 45, but if he's averaging 45 points a game that means he's not doing enough to get his teammates involved where they feel like they need to do what they do for a team to win a championship. So the fact that he believes in them, when they come and double him, he doesn't just take a bad shot, not that he couldn't get it off, because you could argue that he could shoot it every time because he can make a lot. But he just makes the right plays and trust his teammates and he believes in his teammates more than they believe in themselves. You just trust'em. If it's the last play of the game and I'm doubled, I'm going to get it to the open guy. He'll make the right play. There's just a lot of trust going on out there.
DW: He's a great passer.
Bucky: That's of his incredible strengths. You look at all he can do, rebound, pass, he's 6'8", 6'9" and his wing span is over 7 feet, he can shoot it for his size, he can handle it for someone his size as good as anybody. But what the high level NBA guys say is his hands are what make him so special. It looks like he's holding a tennis ball out there. And he can shoot it.
DW: How's his 3 point shot usually?
Bucky: It's good. This year he was between 36 and 40 percent. He doesn't take a lot of them. He made 2 in the state championship game. What I want him to become in the offseason is that knockdown 3 point guy. He wants to get to the point where he can shoot it like Britton Johnson. Can I get him to that point? What if he came up short, that's not too bad. That's his next deal. What if you had a 6'9" guy who used to shoot between 36-40% and now he shoots 40-45%, what do you do now.
DW: What about the play of Sean Elmore, he was pretty fantastic as well.
Bucky: He's played in 2 state finals. Last year against Auburn in the state finals, he made 5 or 6, 3's. I've always said this about Elmore, he's the most competitive player on our team, and one of the most competitive players I've ever been around. In practice, every drill, every thing we do, his team wins. He's just got that in him. He treats every little drill and everything we do like it's the state championship game. Sean loves basketball. More than anything, he loves to compete. We go over to Norcross, Georgia to play in a tournament, we get there at say 10:30 AM we're going to play that night at 6 PM. Most of our players are going to check into their room and take a nap, and come back down before the game, go through prep, get keyed up for the game. Elmore gets there and starts playing our manager in cards and doesn't check his bag into the room, he doesn't do anything. And I look out there and he's playing our managers and coaches in cards for about 6 hours. He spends the time competing. He's just got so much energy. After that, we go over to the gym, he's talking to our players, the other players and puts on an incredible performance and we beat Norcross, who's going to win the state championship in Georgia (in Class 7A, the highest classification in Georgia) and we them by 20 points. My point is he just loves competition. So when you're playing in a state finals game, great competitors like him love big stages. The bigger the game, I always had confidence that Elmore would do great things.
DW: Is North Alabama a good fit for him?
Bucky: Yes. Elmore needs a place where the coaches look after him and if he does well he can play his freshman year. He got some other offers, but his mom went to school there, and he wanted to find that fit where if he could do things right he could compete early.
DW: How about the student section over the weekend.
Bucky: They were great, really great. Those guys are awesome. In 2013, when we won it the first time, nobody could believe it. No one could have fathomed that before the playoffs that Mountain Brook could go on and win the state championship. No one thought that we would ever win it. I remember when we won it in '13, when we got there everybody was shocked, they couldn't believe it. I had a good friend of mine call me, David Faulkner, and he took a red eye home from the west coast. Then we graduate all our seniors from the '13 class, and we come back with one returning starter in '14, and we win it again. I remember David called me and he was way out of town, somewhere on the west coast, and he took a red eye, and said I'll never see this again, I'm not going to miss this. Then we go back in 2015 and lose in the state finals. We only brought one starter from the team in 2014 back, so it was a completely new group. When we went in 2017., we didn't have one player on the team that went to the Civic Center the last time. This year we brought some back. The point is, in 2013, it was great for those fans and those players because it gave them something to believe in that they had not seen. Now that the team comes back and does it, now the fans feel at home and they expect to be there. Some people say, is that good or bad? It works both ways, but there's a lot of good in it, too.
DW: What does the team look like next year?
Bucky: We're going to be good. We'll lose 4 seniors, Britton, Sean Elmore, Hamp Sisson and William Lineberry. That's 3 starters and Hamp came off the bench early. We're going to really miss their leadership, so somebody is going to have to fill in that leadership role. But we'll bring a lot of good players back, so we'll be good. But you've got to have those intangibles. Those guys will have to have those intangibles like this team had the love that they had for each other and the game. But we have Stramaglia coming back. Alex Washington, Trendon Watford coming back. We'll have Grant Griffin coming back. Lior Berman will be back and he had a great year. We'll bring him back and we're excited about what he can do. We'll bring a lot of guys back who didn't get as many minutes, guys who'll need to be ready to play next year. Guys like James Childs, Holt Bashinsky. Peyton Haley, some of those guys. Ben Garrett, too.
DW: How do you like these young players, do you like their talent?
Bucky: Yeah, they're good. I'm not going to say we're going to win it, but what you want to say is we've got a team that can reach their potential. You want to say I don't think this team can't be at the Civic Center. This team could have a chance.
DW: And will you go play a national schedule like you did this year and like you've done in the past?
Bucky: It's actually going to be more. We've got a tournament in Mississippi where Calipari and all the big time coaches go. We're going to go back to Florida over Christmas for the City of Palms Tournament which is an invite only, the top 25 teams. We'll go down there right after Christmas. And then we get back and fly out to South Dakota and play in the Mike Miller Invitational. Mike Mille played at Florida and for the Miami Heat. We'll play some of the teams from that area that are really good. We'll play a national schedule, but one thing that needs to be noted is the 2014 team won 34 games and this team won 34 games. For this team to tie the record of games won at Mountain Brook is incredible. Some teams say they win 20 to 25 games and that's irrelevant because they can schedule their way to 20 wins. These guys went and played everybody. It was the toughest schedule in the state by far, it's not even close. Look at Max Preps schedule rating and it's not even close. But nationally, it was an incredible schedule and for our guys to do that against that schedule was phenomenal.
DW: How will Mountain Brook finish nationally?
Bucky: I don't know because these other tournaments in these states that have a month to go, they start a little later than we do. I know in USA Today in 2014, we finished 26th in the country, and I think we can be in the top 25 for sure. We could be in the top 15, it'll be interesting to see.
DW: Do you think you guys could ever be number 1?
Bucky: That's really tough because when you're doing it, you're competing with prep schools and some of these prep schools can have guys who are 19. In our organization, in the AHSAA (Alabama High School Athletic Association) you have to comply with the state's rules, you've got an age limit, you can't hold kids back in school, but at prep schools, that doesn't happen. You have 19 year olds playing. There are very few restrictions on prep schools. It's more of you're getting a mix between 5th year students in high school, redshirts seniors and guys that can play throughout the country. I will say this, we played a lot of those schools and had good success against them. Could we ever be a Number 1 team in the country, you never say never. But that would be a tall task that's for sure.
DW: Finally what are your plans?
Bucky: My dad told me at the last practice, you better enjoy this because you'll never coach this team again. I said this if i never coach again at age 34, I'd still be a happy man because of the incredible experiences I've had. Ever since I was born I've know 2 things; I love basketball and I love Mountain Brook. That's what I know. I take everything year by year. Every team is its own team, so I'll take it year by year and see where it takes us. I'm in a special place, that's what I know, and this is my home and it would take a very incredibly special opportunity for me to not be here.