URBANA — Plenty of smiles and laughter ensued amid an informal shootaround.
That’s the easiest way to describe how the Urbana boys’ basketball players spent their spare few minutes before coach Verdell Jones Jr. showed up for this past Monday’s practice at Oscar Adams Gymnasium.
As soon as the fourth-year Tigers coach walked through the gym doors, though, all of his pupils went near-silent.
They huddled up near center court. And they listened to some of Jones’ first thoughts regarding the 2019-2020 regular season.
The main gist: Jones believes his Urbana kids have the chance to achieve something never done in program history.
“For anybody, it’s the ultimate. You want to win your last game,” Jones said of the Tigers’ ceiling. “We’re going to create and set the expectations, and our goal is to win our last game.”
Urbana faced stiff competition this past week at Washington’s Tournament of Champions, losing 82-65 to Goodyear (Ariz.) Millenium on Wednesday and falling 65-61 to McGill-Toolen Catholic (Ala.) on Thanksgiving in its first two games of the season
But the Tigers, who won their first regional championship in 30 years last season when Jermale Young hit a buzzer-beater to lift Urbana past Effingham 57-56 in a Class 3A regional title game, know the difficult schedule should help them come March.
“Now our goals are a little bit higher,” said Chris Cross, a senior guard/forward and one of Urbana’s three returning starters from an 18-15 outfit. “We’re trying to go to state and win it all. ... A regional title should be expected for us at this point.”
The Tigers will need to adjust, though, if they want to reach this lofty plateau. Reigning News-Gazette All-Area first-teamer Payton Sheen has graduated, taking with him 17.4 points per game.
Also gone are bigs Miller Calhoun and Tyreese McWilliams, who split time controlling the paint for Urbana.
“Just in terms of character and the quality of those individuals, those things are irreplaceable,” Jones said. “Last year, we had specificity in terms of, we knew (Sheen) was going to shoot the ball ... But these guys are just interchangeable. That’s a different dynamic that, I think, bodes well for us.”
On the flip side, athletes like Cross, Young and senior forward Bryson Tatum remain in the fold.
Cross was the Tigers’ second-leading scorer last season at 11.8 points per game, able to bull his 6-foot-1 frame inside or spot up for a corner three-pointer.
Jones finds himself enamored with what Cross has brought to the table for his last prep run.
And not just in terms of on-court improvement.
“Chris has really taken initiative,” Jones said, “I’ve always said that great programs are not just (led by) coaches, but also are player-led as well, and you’ve got to have those guys that choose to be an extension of the coach.”
Cross’ decision to step into this role is something he feels comes with the territory of being an upperclassman.
“I’ve just got to make sure that I stay in contact with everyone on the team, on and off the court,” he said. “Making sure people are working on what they need to work on to get better, including myself.”
Tatum averaged 10.1 points in 2018-19, while Young ran the offense from the point despite being younger than everyone playing around him.
Young feels that, even with the absences of Sheen, Calhoun and McWilliams, that Urbana actually could be in better shape roster-wise than at this time last season.
“We can go a little bit deeper,” Young said. “Last year we could only go six or seven. We can go eight or nine this year. With the younger guys, as soon as we get them in, get the freshmen jitters off, we’ll be fine.”
Some of the newer faces in the Tigers’ varsity crop include sophomore Jermontre Young, Jermale Young’s brother, and freshman Gideon Kapongo.
“We’re smaller defensively, but ... we can get up and down the court,” said the 6-3 Tatum. “Pressure a lot more. Full-court, half-court defense. Offensively, we’ve got multiple offensive weapons, so we can score a lot quicker.”
Urbana will need everything to click — both new and old — in order to travel where it aims to arrive.
The Tigers placed second in the state in 1941. They have no other state trophies in their hardware case and haven’t qualified since 1942, when a single-class system still was in place.
“It’s always (about) keeping that carrot in front of these young men and helping them understand, don’t rest on your laurels,” Jones said. “You can’t be satisfied. Great competitors are never satisfied.”