DALLAS -- The Tigers of Lincoln High School had not yet taken the court for the first time in 2008-09, but they'd already been backed into a corner. The Texas Association of Basketball Coaches anointed them the top team among Class 4A boys' programs in their preseason poll.
This for a team that would start two sophomores, a junior point guard up from junior varsity and only one senior -- a transfer who had never before played for Lincoln.
"I anticipated us being pretty good, but I did not have any idea we'd be ranked No. 1," Tigers coach Leonard Bishop said.
Such is the burden of potential. One of those Lincoln sophomores happened to be 6-foot-6 forward-center LeBryan Nash, generally considered Texas' top player in the Class of 2010 and one of the state's top talents, period.
"It's a big X on your back," Nash said, referring to the preseason expectations for him and his team. "You've got to show up every night and do your thing."
Bishop figured it would take the Tigers some time to get used to one another, and he was right. Lincoln was coming off a 21-9 season in which it reached the Region II semifinals. The combination of building chemistry and defending the No. 1 ranking left some scars on the Tigers early in the '08-09 season.
They lost their second game of the season to 3A heavyweight Madison (Dallas), and lost to Madison again in late December. At the prestigious Lone Star Invitational in San Antonio, they were knocked around by 5A Kingwood, losing by 19 points.
A four-point loss to 4A Lancaster wouldn't have been so painful if it hadn't been during the Chris Bosh South Dallas Shootout. The event is named for the current NBA star who led the 2001-02 Tigers to a 33-0 record, the school's third state title and a mythical national championship. An 8-foot framed tribute to that team, listing every game result and every player, stands inside the main entrance of the school.
But the Tigers sailed through their 12-game district schedule without a loss to close the regular season ranked 11th by the TABC. And if their first two playoff games last week are any indication, they're picking up steam. The postseason opener against Pinkston (Dallas) was thought to be a serious test, but Lincoln broke open the game in the third quarter for a 74-50 win. The Tigers followed with a 72-56 victory over McKinney.
Next up for the Tigers will be the regional quarterfinals with Kimball (Dallas). The Kimball Knights are 27-9 and beat the Tigers by eight points in December. Last season, Lincoln beat Kimball by four in this same round.
"We're stepping up now knowing it's playoff time," senior guard DeSean Miles said. "We've got to get it done."
Said Bishop, "We have not been able to blend as well as I think we should have, and we're trying to get there. Prior to the first playoff game, we had a group discussion about what each other's strengths and weaknesses are, what their roles are. And we tried to kind of iron that out so that they get a better feel for what we expected. And they did a great job as far as communicating."
Nash and fellow 6-6 sophomore Jordan Williams give the Tigers a potent inside attack that translates into their being the team's two top scorers and rebounders. But even with all the attention that Nash received coming into the season off his tremendous freshman year, he faced something of a transition.
Nash spent the summer playing for the Dallas Mustangs, one of the premier AAU teams in north Texas. With the Mustangs, Nash played guard. He focused this high school season on developing more of his inside game.
"I used to be a finesse player. Now I'm more powerful," said Nash, who's averaging 18.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. "I had to get back inside, which I was used to when I was younger. It's what my team needs me to play."
Nash still needs some counseling from upperclassmen. For example, the Tigers were cruising in the fourth quarter of the Pinkston game when Nash saw a clear path to the basket through the paint as a cat sees a mouse. He took off for a flying dunk, his head way in front of his body like a ski jumper, only to have the ball bang off the iron.
Point guard Steven Govan, standing at the foul line, quietly signaled for Nash to come chat.
"We're up by 20. We don't need him doing anything to get injured," Govan said. "I said he didn't have to take that shot."
Nash conceded his mistake but, with a smile, added in his defense, "If I see the open lane, I'm going to try to take off."
Bishop, in his ninth season at Lincoln, said experiencing the Bosh phenomenon has helped him in dealing with how the Nash hype affects the rest of this team.
"You want to help the others understand, 'Yeah, most of the time, colleges are coming to see LeBryan,'" Bishop said. "But they see everybody. We have a lot of people that get scholarships because of the people that they come out to see and see somebody else."
It doesn't appear Miles needs to be convinced. He said of Nash, "With him on my team, anything can happen."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.