When asked to describe the atmosphere around the Huntington Prep basketball team last season, head coach Rob Fulford's answer is short and to the point, yet not all that surprising.
“It was definitely a circus,” Fulford said in a recent interview, referring specifically his team’s experience on the road.
Sold out gyms, a heavy media presence at games, one-hour autograph sessions. A bit more attention than one might expect for a high school team.
However, the West Virginia school was home to Canadian phenom Andrew Wiggins and Fulford, who says he’s never experienced that type of buzz around a team before, knows most, if not all the interest around his group came from fans and media who just wanted to catch a glimpse of the budding hoops star before he ventured off to the NCAA.
“Certainly Andrew was rock star status,” Fulford said of the 18-year-old. “I think that was one of the things for us last year, the guys had to adjust to that . . . I thought the kids handled themselves well, but it was certainly a circus.”
Things have changed for Fulford’s Irish, currently 8-1 and ranked no.24 in the nation according to maxpreps.com, since the 2013 high school player of the year and Sports Illustrated cover boy moved on to the college game at the University of Kansas. While they still draw crowds, the post-game routine doesn’t usually involve lineups for autographs and media scrums.
On the court the Wigginsless roster has adopted a completely different style of play.
Fulford admits Huntington Prep’s offence last season revolved mostly around isolating Wiggins and fellow Canadian teammate Xavier Rathan-Mayes – he was supposed to be a rookie at Florida St. this year, but the NCAA ruled he was ineligible – and allowing them to take advantage of individual matchups.
Wiggins and Rathan-Mayes were the team’s top scorers and the only ones to average more than 11 points per game – Wiggins averaged 23.4 points per game and Rathan-Mayes, 14.
This year Fulford says the team plays more of a run-and-gun style and relies on a collection of talent to provide the offence as opposed to just one or two players.
“We have a lot of weapons and the kids are unselfish,” the coach said.
Toronto native Montaque Gill-Caesar is one player who’s taken his offensive game to new heights and helped fill the void left by Wiggins. In a recent 127-37 drubbing of Miami Valley the 6-foot-6 small forward scored 56 points on 21-of-34 shooting. He’s the team’s leading scorer this season averaging 19.4 points per game and he’s already drawing interest from the heavy hitters of the NCAA including the University of Kentucky and Michigan State.
There are some who want to compare Gill-Caesar’s on-court abilities to those of Wiggins, but Fulford is quick to shut down that assertion.
“They’re totally different,” he said. “Andrew is 6-foot-8, a lot more bouncy than Teki. Teki shoots the ball better [and] Andrew’s a better ball handler at this stage.
“The only similarity they have is they’re both from Canada and they went to the same high schools in Canada and here.”
That said Fulford believes Gill-Caesar’s offensive outburst this season is thanks in large part to the fact that he was going up against Wiggins, who he refers to as the top defender in college basketball, every day in practice last season.
“There’s nobody that you can put on [Montaque] that we’re going to play at the high school level that he’s going to be intimidated by because he had to go up against Wiggins every day in practice,” he said. “That’s part of the reason kids come to places like this because they get that challenge daily.”
And therein lies the challenge for Fulford. As the head coach of a team that in most situations is only hanging on to its core players for one or two seasons, it’s his job to ensure the program maintains a level of consistency on a yearly basis, with or without an athlete of Wiggins caliber, so elite young players continue to pick Huntington Prep over other high schools around the United States that have a longer history of on-court success.
“What Andrew has done for us is that he’s made it ok for the number one player in the country to come [to Huntington] so it makes recruiting a lot easier.
“Huntington, West Virginia isn’t exactly known to be a happening spot, but for high school basketball it’s a happening spot.”