It has been 10 years since Cannon School won the N.C. Independent Schools 2A boys’ basketball championship. The Cougars have since moved up to 3A, the state’s most competitive class, but might have their best shot at another state title this season.
Cannon returns all five starters from last season’s 19-11 team that lost to Charlotte Latin in the first round of the 3A playoffs. Those five include 6-foot-8, 220-pound junior forward Jairus Hamilton, a top 40 national recruit who is being heavily recruited by schools such as Arizona, Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and N.C. State.
Led by Hamilton, the Cougars start the season No. 1 in the Observer’s preseason Sweet 16 poll.
Never miss a local story.
“Believe it or not,” Cannon coach Che Roth said, “I don’t know if I have a kid in my program that’s more improved than he is. He’s really improved his perimeter game and his ball handling. The kid’s in the gym all the time working, rep after rep. The first 10 to 12 days of practice, he’s been outstanding.”
Joining Hamilton are Philip “Worm” McKenzie, a 6-6 forward who signed with Houston Baptist; Cory Deveaux, a 6-3 guard with Division I recruiting interest; 5-11 junior point guard Zion Hendrix; and 6-5 senior forward Jaleel Usher.
Cannon also has a high-profile transfer in 6-6 junior guard Qon Murphy. Murphy, who was all-conference at Hough High last season, has scholarship offers from Charlotte and Hampton. Tyler Alexander, a 6-7 freshman, adds more size to a big team.
“We’re a lot more versatile,” Roth said. “We have the bulk of our kids back and all of them have improved across the board. Qon is a nice addition. He’s a big guard who can score. The big kid, Tyler Alexander, was on the middle school team last year, but he’s grown 2 inches to 6-7, 215 (pounds). He can learn from the older kids and doesn’t have to be a guy who has to carry the load every night.”
Roth has upgraded his schedule to test his team and prepare for a playoff push.
Cannon started its season Saturday against DICKS’ Nationals champion Oak Hill (Va.) at the Phenom National tournament in Greensboro. Cannon will play several more tournaments with national fields, including the Chick-Fil-A tournament in Columbia next month, and the John Wall Holiday Invitational in Raleigh after Christmas.
“We play a huge schedule,” Roth said. “But we won’t shy away from expectations. We want to compete with the state’s best. Our state is loaded, but any competitor wants to play the best, and I feel from top to bottom our state matches up well with anybody.”
Roth likes his chances against any of the state’s top teams.
“This season is going to be fun,” he said. “I like our group because we can do a lot of things we haven’t been able to do in the past.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr
Observer boys’ Sweet 16 basketball poll
1. Cannon (IND)
2. North Mecklenburg (4A)
3. Concord Robinson (3A)
4. Providence Day (IND)
5. Charlotte Christian (IND)
6. Butler (4A)
7. Independence (4A)
8. Lincolnton (2A)
9. Ardrey Kell (4A)
10. Cox Mill (3A)
11. Weddington (3A)
12. Sun Valley (3A)
13. Lincoln Charter (1A)
14. Lake Norman Charter (2A)
15. Forest Hills (2A)
16. Hough (4A)
Note: Record denotes 2015-16 season