Boys’ basketball: Unbeaten Theodore Roosevelt shakes things up defensively

Host B.J. Koubaroulis runs through the top plays from high school basketball games in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. (Nick Plum for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)
February 4, 2013

Two weeks after he sliced the West Charlotte (N.C.) up for 15 points and a string of remarkable plays in the second half to help his team earn a key win, Theodore Roosevelt guard Johnnie Shuler was back in Coolidge’s gym on Saturday as the Rough Riders took on Milford Mill in the Famjuice/Scholastic Play-By-Play Maryland Challenge.

Once again, Shuler was brilliant. He scored 30 points in the 77-69 win, with half of those coming at the free throw line. It was a rare scoring outburst for the point guard, but what was even more odd Saturday was to see Shuler and the second-ranked Rough Riders play zone defense in the fourth quarter. Roosevelt, now 18-0, is known for running a 94-foot, swarming man-to-man defense, but Coach Rob Nickens made the adjustment late in an attempt to confuse the Milford Mill backcourt, which includes touted prospect Justin Jenifer.

“It slowed them down a little bit,” Shuler said.

The move paid dividends and was a promising sign for the Rough Riders heading into the back-half of the schedule. Not only has Theodore Roosevelt found a facilitator in Shuler and depth in perimeter scoring (five players average double figures in points), but the Rough Riders have also shown an ability to adapt on both ends of the floor during their streak this winter.

Despite the perfect start, the Rough Riders don’t plan to let up. Roosevelt opened the 2010-11 season with a 21-2 mark but lost three-straight by five points or less in the middle of February before reaching the Abe Pollin City Title game. Roosevelt hasn’t lost since a summer league game in July against Riverdale Baptist (19-7), which was held at the Upper Marlboro school, and this week the two schools will meet at Roosevelt in a game that will bear little resemblance to the summer league circuit.

Junior Dion Wiley is getting major attention from Division I collegiate programs, and is also shining the spotlight on the rest of his team. (James Sherrill for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC/The Washington Post)

“On any given night, you can lose,” Nickens said. “We have our work cut out for us.”

Nickens admitted this weekend that he didn’t expect his team to be 18-0 at this point — but the record doesn’t necessarily indicate the type of adjustments the school has scrambled to make to keep its unbeaten stretch alive.

On Saturday, one of Nickens’ best perimeter defenders, Mike Warren, sat for long stretches of the game due to foul trouble — and Theodore Roosevelt was getting roasted by the quickness of Jenifer and the Milford Mill guards. So Nickens, not knowing how his team would respond, went to the zone for one of the first, and maybe only times this season. Nickens refers to all of his players as “dynamite three-point shooters,” and that trait seems to be a prerequisite to be in his program. But so is the ability to defend, and that will be the difference in February and March, he said.

“That’s all we do,” Nickens said. “That’s my style.”

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