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Niblett: Carlisle boys basketball not close to long-term goals
Team wants to win states this year, play national schedule next year

Thursday, February 21, 2013

By MARK THOMPSON - Bulletin Sports Editor

Despite outscoring its opponents by an average of 28.7 points a game en route to a 20-1 record this season, Carlisle’s boys basketball program is a long way from where head coach Jason Niblett envisions it.

The Chiefs are undefeated against Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA) opponents this season and are eyeing a state title. That’s the goal this season.

“To say that it wouldn’t be a disappointment to not win states, I would be telling you a lie, because my goal is to be the best,” Niblett said. “This year, it’s about winning states. But I envision Carlisle being much bigger than that.”

That all starts next season.

Carlisle will play a national schedule next year and hopes to have a few nationally televised games. Niblett’s long-term goal is to continue to build a powerhouse prep basketball program the likes of Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson.

Oak Hill played in 10 of the last 14 national championship games — winning six — and helped produce NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Ty Lawson, Rajon Rondo and Josh Smith, among other professional players.

For Carlisle, that all started with the addition of 7-foot center Thon Maker, of Sudan, who is arguably the nation’s top freshman talent.

“I’ve been around ball a long time,” Niblett said. “I’ve played against a lot of the guys. The Chris Webbers and those guys. I tell you, I’m blown away by some of the things (Maker) has done as a freshman. And I want to see great things happen for him.”

Maker, a 15-year-old freshman with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, was originally playing basketball at Metairie Park Country Day School in Metairie, La. He transferred to Carlisle after he felt he wasn’t being given the opportunity to be a versatile player on the court, his guardian Ed Smith said.

Maker has lived with Smith, who he calls ‘dad’, since he was 12 years old and about 6-feet, 6-inches tall.

This season, Maker is averaging 24.1 points, 13.1 rebounds and 5.1 blocks a game. He’s also managed to average 1.5 steals a game and shoot 58 percent from the floor and 27 percent from 3-point range.

And Carlisle is close to adding another Maker next season — Thon’s 6-foot-9 younger brother, who will be a freshman.

“It’s very close (to happening),” Niblett said.

Maker’s impact on Carlisle’s team has been undeniable this season, and the change in scenery has allowed Maker to expand his game and presence on the court.

Maker’s vision for Carlisle — as well as the vision of Smith, who is a Martinsville-Henry County native — is right in line with Niblett’s.

“To build a powerhouse program here, that’s our goal. We feel that other players will be attracted to the situation,” Smith said. “We have players inquiring. We’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg here of what we’re going to do. We’re going to play a national schedule next year. We want to get good enough to get on ESPN on a nationally televised game, and the school is willing to bring in the parts, as long as they’re good students and willing to work hard in the classroom.”

And for the five players that transferred to Carlisle this season, that has held up.

Niblett said each of them has a 3.75 grade point average (GPA) or higher. Maker’s lowest grade this year has been a 95, Smith said.

“If you saw us in school, you wouldn’t be able to tell we’re basketball players unless you look at our height,” point guard Eric Johnson said. “Other than that, we’re just average students. Everybody is ... really on their books.”

Maker was the first addition to the team, but Carlisle quickly added Johnson, a junior from Durham, N.C. Johnson transferred from Christ School in Arden, N.C. It’s the same program that all three Plumlee brothers — Miles, Mason and Marshall — attended before playing at Duke.

“A lot of kids want to come here,” Johnson said. “I think it starts with winning first. I think that will put us over the hump. But it definitely takes a long time to build a program such as Christ School or Oak Hill. But I think we’re heading in the right direction to do so.”

Along with Johnson came guard Malcolm N’diaye, of Sweden. N’diaye quickly turned into Carlisle’s shut-down defender and averages 11.6 points a game. Though N’diaye speaks perfect English, unlike a few of his foreign teammates, Niblett only needs to say three words to get N’diaye’s defensive motor turning: “Malcolm, no touch.”

From their N’diaye tries to keep his opponent, usually the other team’s top player, from ever touching the ball.

Carlisle’s final two additions were forwards Kevin Cuesta and Yesid Mosquera. Both players are from Columbia. Cuesta has recently taken to recording nightly double-doubles with his strength in the paint, and Mosquera comes off the bench at extended periods throughout Carlisle’s games.

But for the Chiefs to compete on a national schedule, Niblett said they will need more depth off the bench.

“There’s no question about it,” Niblett said. “If you play that type of schedule, you’ve got to have depth (and) a little bit more size.”

Of course, it won’t be the first time the Chiefs team grows. In a span of months Carlisle has come a long way.

Mitchell Hamlett, who has attended Carlisle for more than a decade, said he remembers not knowing if the Chiefs would even have a basketball team.

Then his concern shifted as he learned about Carlisle’s transfers.

“When you hear that a 7-foot 15-year-old is coming to your school, you worry about, ‘Am I going to get the playing time?’” he said. “But I’ve started almost every game. Coach Niblett has been very awesome about getting everybody playing time.

“This is by far, of any sport I’ve ever played, the best team I’ve ever played on. So it’s always so much fun to come out here and play with these guys (and) this team.”

And despite all the new faces and personalities, Hamlett said the team is close. They eat together before practice and games, and sometimes after as well. They spend time together at school, and a few of them have rap battles on the bus rides while the other team members listen.

“Sometimes you get the whole bus hearing those ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from those rap battles,” Hamlett said.

The Chiefs continue their Virginia Independent Conference tournament run at 6 p.m. tonight at home against Covenant. After the VIC tournament, Niblett’s eyes will shift to the state title.

Right now, Carlisle’s program is exactly where Niblett envisioned it. He said the Chiefs are at about a five or six out of ten on a scale of their long-term goals.

He also has the coaching experience to develop top-level talent and develop it.

Niblett coached his Heat Academy basketball development program in Martinsville to a 129-27 record and helped send 21 players to the NCAA Division I ranks before he joined former USC coach Tim Floyd and his newly assembled coaching staff at UTEP in 2010.

“Me being a former player myself and being able to play professionally in Europe, there’s a bigger picture than playing here at Carlisle,” Niblett said. “I enjoy this side of it, helping kids reach their dreams. I can’t say what will happen in the future. I don’t make any promises, but I do envision staying here and building this program to a national level.”

The next step in that process will begin in the offseason with the work Carlisle’s players put in on AAU teams and during their own free time while Niblett finds more size and depth.

But for now, Carlisle has a state title to win.


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