FINALLY GAME TIME: Temple College men set for season opener as new coach Ellis returns from COVID-19
By GREG WILLE
As of Jan. 30, 2020, the Temple College men's basketball team had played 22 games out of its 30-game regular-season schedule.
Going into Jan. 30, 2021, the Leopards have played . . . well, they haven't played any games yet.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NJCAA decided to delay the start of basketball season from early November until January. Temple's original season opener was slated for Jan. 22, but the Leopards haven't been able to play any of their first three scheduled games because first-year head coach Clifton Ellis tested positive for the coronavirus two weeks ago and has been in quarantine at his home.
“It's been frustrating and obviously not an ideal situation. It's frustrating for our guys because they've looked forward to this season,” Ellis, who reported no severe symptoms, said by telephone Thursday. “We're all dealing with it, but I worry about their mental health because they've put so much into being student-athletes and they've been isolated from their families.”
After the 43-year-old Ellis received a negative test result and a clean bill of health Friday, he and Temple finally are primed to begin a new era of Leopards hoops – the first season without Kirby Johnson as head coach since 1986-87 – when they host Our Lady of the Lake University's junior varsity squad at 1 p.m. Saturday at TC Gym.
“I come off (of isolation) Friday night and we'll be ready to go Saturday,” former TC standout point guard Ellis said Thursday, adding that he expects all 13 players on Temple's active roster to be available for Saturday's opener. “It's not the ideal situation, but our guys mentally need to get out there and do something they love doing.”
The NJCAA already had limited basketball teams to 22 games this regular season instead of the standard 30. Temple's first three games were canceled and Western Texas is unable to host the Leopards on Sunday, so TC now is down to a maximum of 18 games.
The Leopards will begin their 14-game schedule in the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference at Ranger on Saturday, Feb. 6. Temple's conference home opener is against Southwestern Christian on Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m.
“This year you have to enjoy the competition and play as many games as you can, follow the protocols and take it from there,” Ellis said. “We've got a chance to do something good.”
CHANGING OF THE GUARD: Temple College men's basketball coach Kirby Johnson shakes hands with a Southwestern Christian player after the Leopards' 85-56 victory on Feb. 22, 2020 at TC Gym. It was the final home game in Johnson's 33 seasons as Temple's coach before he retired. Johnson's successor is 43-year-old Clifton Ellis, who was a standout point guard for him at Temple from 1995-97 and then won 367 games and made four state tournament appearances during 14 seasons as a head coach in the San Antonio area. Ellis will make his Temple debut today when the Leopards host the Our Lady of the Lake University junior varsity at 1 p.m. at TC Gym. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
A highly successful high school head coach in the San Antonio area for 14 seasons, Ellis was hired by TC last April 20, two months after he, his wife, Aletha, and their two sons – Clifton Jr., 10, and Aiden, 8 – attended the final home game and ensuing celebration of Johnson's 33-season, 715-victory run as head coach of the high-scoring Leopards.
Ellis played two seasons at point guard for Johnson at Temple from 1995-97, earning all-conference and all-region honors as a sophomore after helping power the Leopards to the Region V championship game, their deepest foray in postseason play during Johnson's tenure. He then produced two stellar seasons while playing at Southwest Texas State (now Texas State) before he entered the coaching profession.
During the nine months since Ellis succeeded him as Temple's head coach, Johnson – who described Ellis as “a cerebral player” and his TC's hiring of him as "a home run" – hasn't hesitated to tell his former point guard that Johnson retired at precisely the right time, considering all of the problems and uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ellis has excellent connections through his service within the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches and said his “recruiting philosophy will be a lot like Kirby's” in that he'll primarily focus on signing talented high school players in the triangle formed by the San Antonio, Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston areas. However, he also plans to “cast a wider net” and take advantage of opportunities to bring in transfers from other colleges.
Although he's still adjusting to the college level and trying to learn its ins and outs, Ellis certainly brings impressive credentials as a head coach. In a combined 14 seasons at San Antonio Wagner and Schertz Clemens, Ellis compiled a 367-133 record (.734), guided each school to two state tournament appearances and coached two future NBA players in Jordan Clarkson and Andre Roberson.
Asked what on-court style he envisions for his inaugural Leopards team a quarter-century after he first moved to Temple, Ellis had a quick response.
“We're going to play up-tempo,” he said. “In our first scrimmage we scored 138 points. That was good for our first time on the court all semester.”
Ellis also likes to incorporate elements of the Michael Jordan/Phil Jackson-era Chicago Bulls' vaunted triangle offense, which he learned while playing for then-Southwest Texas head coach Mike Miller.
Ellis said the Leopards had 65 practices during the fall semester and “no issues” related to COVID-19, but since they returned earlier this month their time on the court together has been very limited because of positive tests and related quarantines and contact tracing.
“Every day seems to change based on who's here. We have to introduce ourselves again to everybody,” Ellis said. “Our guys have been very receptive and I've appreciated their maturity in this situation. They've seen it as an opportunity.”
Johnson guided Temple to Region V Tournament berths in each of the last 10 seasons, and his final Leopards team that went 24-7 had a pair of excellent players in explosive guard Kedrian Johnson (West Virginia) – a third-team NJCAA Division I All-American and the leading scorer in Kirby Johnson's 33 seasons as TC – and 6-foot-11 forward Carlton Linguard (Kansas State), an imposing rebounder and interior defender.
With those two players now in the Big 12 Conference, Temple's top returning player is 6-8 sophomore small forward Aleu Aleu, a potent 3-point shooter who averaged 10.9 points and 5.7 rebounds in 30 starts. Aleu, a 175-pound player from Austin, has signed with Texas-San Antonio.
“Aleu's in a different role (this season),” Ellis said. “Last year they had Kedrian as the all-time scorer in Kirby's career and they had Carlton inside. This season Aleu's had to take on a bigger scoring role and a bigger leadership role. Things change and the ball goes through you more.”
Khouri Perkins (6.1 points, 3.4 rebounds per game), a 6-2 sophomore guard, is TC's only other player who was a regular contributor.
“I knew Khouri from high school (in San Antonio) and he's the same solid player he's always been,” Ellis said. “He just keeps making plays.”
Sophomore point guard Tyler Watkins (6-0, 170) played in two games last season before a season-ending injury allowed him to redshirt and return this season. Ellis said Watkins has the potential to perform at an all-conference level.
“Tyler has maturity and he's hungry to take that next step as a player,” said Ellis, who added that Aleu, Perkins and Watkins have been “just as big off the court because they keep our guys organized and tell them how classes work.”
Ellis also expects strong play right away from 6-5 freshman guard Elijah Lomas (San Antonio Harlan) and freshman point guards Davion Sargent-Young (Katy Paetow) and Kristopher O'Neal, who helped lead Fort Bend Hightower to last season's Class 5A state tournament, which was not played because of COVID-19 concerns. Six-foot freshman Sherrod Whitley (Austin Akins) is another guard for TC.
Freshmen Brandon Monroe, a 6-2 guard, and Maison Adeleye, a 6-4 forward, were high school teammates at Arlington Seguin. Ellis said 6-8 freshman forward Tawab Kokumo (San Antonio Brennan) “needs a year to develop. His best basketball is in front of him.” Another tall, rangy freshman forward for the Leopards is 6-9, 185-pound Tabarius Jolly from Crosby.
Ellis and TC welcomed a large addition – as in 6-10, 270 pounds – when long-armed forward Mawien Mawien of Calgary, Alberta transferred in from Canada's Mount Royal University before this semester. The tallest Leopard and the only one listed at heavier than 195 pounds, Mawien is eligible to play immediately.
Although Temple has been a perennial qualifier for the Region V Tournament as one of the NTJCAC's top four teams, the coaches' preseason poll picked the Leopards to finish seventh in the eight-team league, ahead of only Southwestern Christian. Hill is predicted to win the conference championship, followed by Collin, McLennan, Ranger, Grayson and Weatherford.
In a new format for postseason play this year, all eight NTJCAC teams will advance to a single-elimination bracket. The No. 1 seed will host the No. 8 seed, the No. 2 seed will host the No. 7 seed, and so on. The league championship game is April 6, then the NTJCAC champion will battle the champ of the Western Junior College Athletic Conference tournament on April 10 to determine Region V's automatic qualifier for the NJCAA Division I Tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas.
At this juncture, though, the postseason is of little concern to Ellis. He's busy trying to keep his players physically healthy and mentally focused on academics and basketball. After all, he hasn't seen them in person in two weeks, instead communicating with them by phone as he's dealt with his own bout of coronavirus.
What should help everyone involved, Ellis believes, is finally getting to play an actual basketball game Saturday.
“It's been unfortunate. It's a 1-in-100-years pandemic, and we haven't been through it before. This is brand new to everybody,” Ellis said. “We're just starting basketball and we hope we can play games."