CLEVELAND, Tenn.—The look is a lot different for the Cleveland boys' basketball team this year. Yet the results are the same.
Cleveland lost all five starters from last year's team that reached a state sectional, including Ish Sanders, the program's all-time leading scorer with more than 2,000 points, and Terrell Parks, who scored more than 1,000.
The Blue Raiders were voted third out of seven teams in the Class 5-AAA preseason poll, and senior guard Jay Mee was suspended for the first 11 games of the season. But coach Jason McCowan had some eager players who spent last year coming off the bench or playing junior varsity, and the Raiders successfully defended their league title.
Unlike last season with a 12-0 record in 5-AAA, Cleveland tied Ooltewah and Bradley Central with 9-3 league marks but earned the top seed for the district tournament. The Blue Raiders are 16-7, with six of the losses coming by a combined 15 points and the other by nine.
"These guys were new to the scene and hungry to prove they were worthy of putting on a Cleveland jersey," McCowan said. "They've now got bigger roles; we're a different team."
All five starters average scoring in double figures, and each has had over 20 points at least once.
"We don't know where the production is going to come from on any given night," McCowan said.
The new lineup also meant putting players in positions they weren't accustomed to, most notably Tevin Rutledge. The 6-foot-2 senior primarily played inside the past two seasons but was asked to move out on the perimeter. He had a career high with 26 points in a December win over Bradley, which included four 3s as the Bears' game plan was centered around taking others out of the offense.
"It's just a different feeling this year," Rutledge said. "Last year I was being asked to take charges, get offensive and defensive rebounds and score off tip-ins.
"This year I'm being asked to score more and guard other teams' best perimeter players."
Rutledge, Mee and sharp-hooter B.J. Davis were all part of a 10-man rotation last year, but junior post Jarod Rhodes, the team's leading scorer, played junior varsity, as did fellow juniors Caleb Hiddleson and Ronzell Robinson and senior Tra Upton.
The Raiders also were blessed with the addition of sophomore point guard D.J. Bowles, who averaged 26 points per contest as a freshman at Notre Dame before transferring. They've already locked up a spot in the Region 3-AAA tournament but would love nothing more than a tourney championship to go along with it.
"Last year was a good feeling for us winning the district, but this year would be so much better because I'd feel like it was more hands-on for me," Rutledge said. "It's my senior year, and I want to go out with a bang."