published Sunday, March 13th, 2011

National debut

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    Alex Wells spins a ball on the tip of his finger during practice Thursday. The Chattanooga State men's and women's basketball teams practiced at the college's gym Thursday afternoon. Both teams will be traveling to Kansas next week for national tournaments. Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Alex Wells respects the national ranking of Midland College, as well as the size of the players on the nation’s third-ranked junior college basketball team.

But the Chattanooga State sophomore guard from East Ridge and his teammates aren’t intimidated by the 30-3 Texas team they will face Tuesday at 11 a.m. EST as the NJCAA Division I men’s tournament begins in Hutchinson, Kan.

“I know they’re real big, but I think we have more athletic guys and we’re just as big,” Wells said. “I think we should win.”

Indeed, the 24-5 Tigers will have the tallest man on the floor — 6-foot-11 Philip Jurick, Wells’ former East Ridge teammate and the nation’s leading shot-blocker with nine per game. He led NJCAA Region VII in rebounding (12.5) and field-goal percentage and was the region player of the year as well as the defensive honoree.

“I think we’re a really good defensive team, especially with big Phil down low,” Wells said. “His defense has really improved since high school.”

Coach Jay Price said Wells also is better defensively.

“In meetings we’ll say we’ve got to stop this guy, and Wells will raise his hand and say, ‘Hey, Coach, I’ve got him,’” Price said. “Sideeq Cooper came in here as a perimeter defensive specialist, and Wells had to turn up his game.”

This is the first trip to Hutchinson for Chattanooga State, while Midland is making its 10th appearance and has two championships, most recently in 2007, and the Chaparrals finished second two years ago. But four of the Tigers were at “Hutch” last year with Northwest Florida State College: Latraius Mosley, Joshua Lee, Michael Robertson and Cooper.

“They brought that championship feel to this team,” said Alex Dean, a 6-6 sophomore power forward from Atlanta who leads the team with 15.6 points a game and is second with 7.4 rebounds.

“This team has a lot more chemistry than last year’s,” Dean said. “There were no real problems last year. We just weren’t clicking as much. We play really well together.”

That has been especially true in the 2011 part of their schedule, when the Tigers’ only loss was by one point in Memphis. After losing four consecutive TCCAA games in the fall, they did no finger-pointing, Dean said. In fact, they started spending more time with each other away from the gym.

“We expected all four of the guys from Northwest Florida to contribute right away,” Price said, “but I think early on they were being too passive. It wasn’t that they weren’t playing hard — they were trying to fit in and not be too aggressive. They were being too unselfish.

“Mosley was the only one of the four who played quite a bit at Northwest, but they all had been to the national tournament as a team. When they got here they said from day one: ‘Coach, we’re going to the nationals. We’re going back.’”

Mosley wound up being voted the most valuable player of the regional, joined on the all-tournament team by Dean and Wells, and Robertson and Cooper each scored in double figures twice in the three regional games.

With Chattanooga State’s talent and depth comes flexibility, and the team has succeeded both in fastbreak and half-court offenses.

“I like to run, but I like half-court better,” said Wells, who has hit 39 percent of his 3-point shots and 85 percent of his free throws. “I like running plays and coming off screens.”

Said Dean, whose .645 shooting percentage was second only to Jurick’s .683 in Region VII: “It doesn’t matter to me — I can play either way. But it’s a big help that we can do both.”

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