The Mooseheart boys basketball team looks the part of a potential sensation.
Once the ball goes up in the air, though, coach Ron Ahrens doesn’t think reality measures up to the hype – yet.
“We look great in warm-ups,” Ahrens said. “We’re a great warmup team, but we’re not a very good basketball team.”
The Red Ramblers are using the summer to try to close that gap in preparation for a highly anticipated 2012-13 season, the first in which South Sudanese transfers Akim Nyang, Makur Puou and Mangisto Deng will be eligible to play. Nyang, a 7-footer, the 6-91⁄2 Puou and 6-7 Deng could practice but not play last year after arriving at Mooseheart through the African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education program.
Since arriving from Africa in spring 2011, it’s been multilayered immersion for the towering trio – into U.S. education, basketball and the English language. That’s a potentially overwhelming transition, but Puou said undertaking the challenges together helps reduce the stress.
“It’s nice to be together because sometimes I [don’t] understand something or I don’t know what to do, and one of us knows what to do and understands,” Puou said.
The group’s size and athleticism carries transformative promise for a Mooseheart program that usually maintains a low profile on the area basketball scene.
On Wednesday night at the Geneva Summer League, the Red Ramblers continued sparring with much larger schools to challenge their new-look squad. Deng sparkled in an 11-point win against Kaneland before the Red Ramblers struggled with their rotations against Geneva’s hot-shooting, half-court offense in a loss to the host Vikings.
Each of the three transfer students will be considered juniors this year, though they have academic credit catch-up to play in order to be recruited as class of 2014 college basketball prospects – a goal for each of them.
Ahrens raves about the trio’s willingness to learn.
“No frustration level whatsoever,” Ahrens said. “Whatever we tell them, they soak up like a sponge. There’s not a question, not an argument – they do exactly what the coaches tell them to do. On the other end of that continuum, though, basketball knowledge is extremely, extremely limited right now. We’re at a disadvantage.”
Maybe so, but the Red Ramblers can expect zero sympathy – and perhaps more than a pinch of envy – when the season tips this winter. The arrival of the South Sudanese trio gives the Red Ramblers extraordinary size for a high school team, even more pronounced at the small-school, Class 1A level.
“I think we’re going to be an outstanding defensive team,” Ahrens said. “We’re so long. If I can get two guys to stand on the bottom block, people are going to have trouble scoring, but they want to chase people out at the front of the key. But that all comes down to basketball knowledge, not playing in the system and playing unorganized basketball.”
The coach’s bottom line – “I’ve got a lot of coaching to do to make it a team,” he said. Each of the three are aiming to accelerate their basketball progressions with the Indiana Elite AAU program, though their roles there are vastly different than they are at Mooseheart.
Although there is no disregarding his 7-foot stature, Nyang is “still very mechanical,” as Ahrens puts it, and struggles to find his touch around the basket.
Puou, a gifted athlete who put more time into volleyball than basketball in Africa, is further along, both on the basketball court and in the weight room, where he has nearly doubled his bench press to about 245 pounds.
“My game was defense,” Puou said. “I played a lot of defense, and that was my game. But now I’m working on my offense a little bit, so I think I’m doing really good. Really well.”
Deng, meanwhile, projects to be Mooseheart’s point guard despite standing 6-7. His ball-handling ability at his size is Deng’s most striking attribute, and Ahrens revels in envisioning the headaches he can give opposing offenses at the point of the Red Ramblers’ new 1-2-2 zone defense.
Perhaps the most outgoing of the three, Deng said hours spent back home watching CDs of Kobe Bryant play basketball inspired his perimeter skill set. Off the court, Deng said he’s enjoying more responsibility in the U.S.; back home, his sister did his laundry for him, he said.
“We’re really homesick, but when we talk to our family [on the phone], we feel a little bit better,” said Deng, who is rounding back into form after November surgery to repair a torn ACL.
There are a handful of other Mooseheart students of African origin, including a fourth South Sudanese transfer, distance running specialist Wal Khat. But most, such as track star and fellow basketball starter Oumaru Abdulahi (a guard), have been in the country most or all of their lives, and many have been on campus since their elementary school days.
Deng, Nyang and Puou share a common knowledge of Arabic in addition to separate, more local dialects. They were intentionally assigned separate residence houses at Mooseheart to coax them to interact with English-speaking classmates, and Mooseheart officials marvel at the progress they’ve made.
The trio wedges basketball training this summer around morning classes at Mooseheart and afternoon classes at Waubonsee Community College, where they are studying English as a second language.
While the summer is a natural time to work through transitional snags, Ahrens knows much will be expected of the Red Ramblers the next two years. That’s why they entered the Geneva Summer League, full of 3A and 4A competition, and are attempting to add a few bigger schools to their regular season schedule this winter.
The buzz will surely grow as the group’s skills progress, but Ahrens said he is more focused on helping the transfers achieve their larger goal of receiving quality, American educations.
“I’m pretty realistic,” Ahrens said. “We’re 7-foot, 6-10 and 6-7 in 1A basketball. We should win games. But I’m more concerned about our court behavior rather than wins and losses, and my guys know that.
“Every kid probably on campus knows that because I’ve gone the last three years into regionals without having my best player because I’ve not permitted him to play. I want that message to [register] with the kids rather than thinking wins and losses because that’s what the culture of Mooseheart basketball is.”