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Centennial trio rivals the best of any around

1/23/2011
Courtesy of Veronica Gomez

CORONA -- With his head seemingly on a swivel, Centennial's Michael Caffey dribbles the basketball up the court, his eyes constantly surveying the floor in front of him as a pesky opponent attempts to make things difficult.

A one-bounce dribble to the left and a quick crossover move back to the right side frees up some much-needed additional space. Seconds later, Caffey is driving down the lane, into the heart of a defense quickly collapsing around him.

Amid all of the confusion, somehow, some way, he collects himself with a jump stop at the free-throw line and a short jumper presents itself.

Out on the wing stands a teammate, Gelaun Wheelwright, who is positioned just beyond the 3-point arc, patiently waiting for the kick-out pass. But out of the corner of his eye, Caffey catches a fleeting glimpse of a cutter, Dominique Dunning, diving to the basket and a well-placed bounce pass leads to an uncontested layup.

The scenario has played many a time.

Caffey runs the show from his point guard position. As the shooting guard, Wheelwright makes himself available on the perimeter, where he is as consistent as they come burying jumpers, open or not. Dunning is the slasher, of course, a resourceful wing who is always on the move and looking for ways to exploit the defense.

Three seniors. All of them guards. Each equally talented. For anyone facing the Huskies, it is one of those proverbial match-up nightmares.

Stopping one of the trio is entirely possible. It has happened on numerous occasions. Eventually, however, either Caffey, Wheelwright or Dunning is going to make you pay. And perhaps that best explains why Centennial is considered one of the top teams in the Southland and one of the premier programs in the nation, for that matter.

"Talk about three special players, Michael, Gelaun and Dominique, honestly, I haven't seen a better combination than those kids,’’ Huskies coach Josh Giles said. "You know what, they're basketball junkies who work well together. They understand what the other player is capable of doing and they aren’t afraid to share the ball.

"When you talk about the best backcourts in Southern California, our guys have to be in the conversation. They can give any set of guards in the country a good run for their money. I think there's plenty of people that would agree with me too.’’

It is difficult to argue with Giles’ logic given each of his players figures to be competing at the NCAA Division I level next season. Caffey committed to Long Beach State. Wheelwright is heading to Weber State. Not to be outdone, Dunning decided that New Mexico was the best fit for him.

Think about it, not many high school programs around these parts can boast about having three players with brighter futures.

Let alone, three experienced guards.

"When it comes to backcourt play, Centennial has some of the best guys in the state, we've seen them already, we know,'' said Woodland Hills Taft coach Derrick Taylor, whose team lost to the Huskies by three points in late December.

"Most teams don't have three perimeter players that can play at a high level like Centennial does, that's a tremendous asset to have. All three of them can shoot, handle the ball and play good defense. Honestly, most teams are lucky to have one perimeter player that can play at a high level. I have always believed high school basketball games are won if you have great guard play and that team has it, no doubt about it.''

The Huskies figure to be tested early and often this week in two key Big VII League games on the road. First, they play at Riverside King on Tuesday night before traveling to Riverside Poly on Thursday. Both games tipoff at 7 p.m.

Chances are, Centennial (16-3, 7-0) remains focused on the task at hand and prevails with a pair of impressive victories, which could prompt a move up from its current No. 4 ranking in the ESPNLosAngeles.com Top 20 poll.

"We have big goals this season, and the most important one is winning a CIF title. But before we can do that, we know we have some business to take care of in league play,'' Caffey said. "Bottom line is, this is the final year for me Gelaun and Dominique. We want to prove that we're the best around and go out on top.''

Wheelright and Dunning are key pieces of the puzzle, to be sure. Ultimately though, the Huskies figure to go as far as Caffey takes them.

He is, after all, a four-year varsity contributor. As a sophomore, Caffey averaged six assists per game. Last year, he increased the total to 7.3 a night, a good sign considering he had the ball in his hands a majority of the time.

This season, Caffey's numbers are down a tick, 6.5 assists per game. However, the 5-foot-11 floor general has taken the next step in his progression and elevated his play in areas that were weaker in the past. His statistics -- field-goal and free-throw percentages, scoring, rebounding and steals included -- are up across the board.

"Michael is a playmaker, he frees things up for us and everyone involved,'' Wheelwright said. "He's always been an unselfish player, the kind who makes the guy next to him better, that's what you need out of your point guard.''

Give Wheelwright an open look at the rim, and more often than not, he will find the bottom of the net. At 6-1, he has decent size and his length enabled him to consistently shoot over the top of zone defenses geared to stop him the last two years.

Wheelwright averaged a team-high 17.8 points as a sophomore and he duplicated the feat as a junior with 18.4 points per outing. Little has changed, he is still lights out from long range, shooting 56 percent from the field this season.

"When Gelaun steps back, it's over, you know he's going to knock down the shot,'' Dunning said. "The thing about him is, he's smart. If a defender cheats, he'll put the ball on the floor and blow right bye the dude. I've seen him do it a ton of times, that's what separates him from the others and makes him a complete player.''

As far as Dunning, college coaches and scouts appear to agree that the 6-4 senior possesses the most upside of the three. Accordingly, ESPNU ranks Dunning among the Southern California's top 10 prospects.

He arrived at Centennial after transferring from nearby Corona Santiago following a standout freshman season. Dunning has been making up for lost time ever since and has averaged 17.5 points per game since joining the Huskies.

He has done little to tarnish his growing reputation this season. Dunning is averaging 21.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.7 steals per game.

"How do I say this, how do I word things? Here we go: There are plenty of players out there that might be more talented than Dominique, but nobody gets more out of himself than him,'' Giles said. "It's a trait all the great players have. I can't tell how many times I've talked to coaches at the next level about that very same thing.''

With so much talent out on the hardwood, the casual observer might be under the impression that there's not enough touches to go around for the trio.

That's not necessarily the case though. Far from it, in fact.

Caffey, Wheelwright and Dunning have figured out a way to makes things work.

One need not look any further than Centennial's results this season for proof.

"We feed off of each other, that's just the way we work,'' Dunning said. "If one of us getting off and scoring a bunch, the other two will pick up the slack in other areas. By the time we're done with most of our games, we have managed to figure out a way to break down the other team. We think it's a recipe for success and it's worked well so far.''