Hughley, LeFlore putting Alabama basketball on the map
Otis Hughley coaches while standing on the hardwood of a basketball court. He spends the rest of his time on a soapbox.
The coach of LeFlore High in Mobile, Ala., has an opinion on everything. Articulate and bombastic, Hughley doesn't hide from it, either.
He sounds off on his view that Alabama is a football state, only producing basketball greats "by accident."
He grumbles about visiting Birmingham for the state final four and watching his best player find foul trouble because the referees won't let his team play.
He can't understand why his superiors implore him to wear a jacket and tie to games in lieu of a warm-up suit when he just sweats through his clothes, anyway.
Hughley is engaging and overpowering. His Rattlers display the same traits.
No wonder he will guide the ESPN RISE FAB 50 No. 7 LeFlore High (18-2) team into Thursday's matchup with No. 9 South Atlanta (13-1) in the Old Spice High School Showcase in Birmingham (ESPNU, 9 p.m. ET).
No wonder he will bring ESPN Scout's Inc.'s No. 4 player DeMarcus Cousins, a 6-foot-10 forward, into a marquee showdown with No. 2 player Derrick Favors, South Atlanta's 6-foot-9 forward, with an array of reinforcements.
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Despite an Alabama venue -- the University of Alabama-Birmingham's Gene Bartow Court -- there's a neutral-court feel for Thursday's matchup between ESPN RISE FAB 50 No. 7 LeFlore (Mobile, Ala.) and No. 9 South Atlanta (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET), writes Chris Lawlor. MORE
No wonder Hughley carries an eye-popping 178-20 Rattlers record into Bartow Arena. No wonder his team outscores opponents by an average of 30 points.
"We really intimidate a lot of teams," said senior guard Darryl Woods, who is averaging nine points and 12 rebounds.
The state of Alabama's most dominating team embodies its coach, a mentor who has been a head pro coach in China.
"He's a pretty colorful guy," senior guard Marlon Ford said. "But he is the biggest reason why we are the way we are."
Thursday's game is not LeFlore's first time in the spotlight. The team handed No. 11 DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) its only loss and dropped single-digit defeats to No. 2 Oak Hill (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) and No. 17 Fairfax (Los Angeles) in the prestigious 'Iolani Classic in Hawaii.
Yet the LeFlore players feel overlooked, and as their coach would, they say so.
"It's hard for us to get a good game out of our area because teams are scared of us," said Cousins, who is averaging 27 points with 12 rebounds. "And they don't want a loss on their schedule. But nationally, I'd say that we're underrated."
Added Ford: "People don't give Alabama much respect in basketball. We want to go out and show we can play, just like any other state."
Hughley rarely allows his players to relax. He pushes them past their limit. Accordingly, the up-tempo Rattlers rarely allow opponents to breath.
"We play cut-throat, in-your-face, in-your-guts defense," said Woods, who added that the team does not touch a ball for two weeks while it learns to play D.
LeFlore may not defend baseline-to-baseline as it did before Cousins arrived prior to his junior season. Why force one of the nation's top big men into an all-out sprint?
And LeFlore may not feature perfectly balanced scoring anymore. Why force the hotly recruited senior to divvy up his points?
But the school does win, which is exactly what Cousins hoped would happen when he enrolled at the top school in his birthplace of Mobile.
"I knew they were the powerhouse in Alabama," Cousins said. "And if I was going to play, LeFlore is the only school I wanted to play for."
He's not alone. Players such as Ford sat out a year after transferring to play for Hughley. Indiana freshman Nick Williams, who is averaging 8.9 points, starred at LeFlore, too.
In all, Hughley has sent 42 on to college scholarships, 16 of them to Division I.
Along the way, he builds long-term relationships, serving as a father figure and keeping the players away from the school's rough neighborhood. Hughley does yell and scream, but he knows there is a mutual respect among his players.
"They'd rather fight a wild pack of alligators than to make me upset with them," Hughley said.
LeFlore was successful before Hughley -- who played for legendary prep coach Bob Hurley at St. Anthony's (N.J.) High -- took over the team in 2003. Just not to this level.
University of Alabama senior guard Brandon Hollinger, a former LeFlore standout, met Hughley before one of the school's informal summer league games. Hollinger's team had been coaching itself while it waited for the hire.
It was slated to play Blount (Prichard, Ala.) High, a team that had won by 43 in the first meeting. Hughley had two days to prepare.
"And we lost by three," Hollinger recalled. "He made a 40-point difference. We knew he was a good coach. He has a lot of philosophies and teaches you things you don't know."
Hughley had a goal of winning the school a mythical national title in the first five years. It hasn't happened yet.
His team was 35-0 and ranked second when it lost in the state finals in 2005. LeFlore finally broke through for a state title in 2007. But misses in other years flank the victory.
"When we don't produce, that falls back on the coach," Hughley said. "I don't care. That's fine. But the expectations are so high, nobody expects us to lose."
LeFlore has raised them again. Hughley knows there is a chance that by playing so many games outside the state that his team will grow acclimated to the officials who let the teams play rough. As it has in the past, this may hurt in Birmingham.
But Hughley couldn't resist.
"Do you stay at home and get the kids accustomed to playing in-state basketball, or do you get your kids exposed to the country?" Hughley asked. "Do you take them out into other states and help them get to the point where they can make the adjustment to any [obstacle]? That's what we're trying to do."
Ian R. Rapoport covers University of Alabama athletics for The Birmingham News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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