The night of Dec. 11, 2012, was not a good one for the St. Vincent-St. Mary boys basketball team.
Akron Archbishop Hoban waltzed into St. V-M and defeated the host team 47-41. The loss was the third in a row for the Fighting Irish, who opened the season with a victory.
Senior Nick Wells, junior Jalen Hudson and freshman VJ King shook hands with the jubilant Knights after the game, but their long faces showed how much the loss hurt.
St. V-M regrouped and beat Lakewood St. Edward 63-52 on Dec. 14. Three two-game losses followed later in the season, but the Irish always found a way to right themselves.
Wells and Hudson have played major roles, and so has King, a highly touted freshman nationally who is constantly compared to former St. V-M star LeBron James.
Wells, Hudson and King have led the Irish (20-9) into a Division II state championship matchup with the Columbus Bishop Watterson Eagles (27-1) at 1:30 p.m. today.
The Irish will take the court at Value City Arena in Schottenstein Center with an 11-game winning streak. King will also take the court with fans watching him closely.
“He’s exceeded my expectations,” St. V-M coach Dru Joyce II said. “One, because he has handled all the comparisons and all the things that have come along. He is a talented young man. The comparisons of coming to St. Vincent-St. Mary and being highly ranked in the country; everyone says: ‘Oh, how does he compare to LeBron?’ He has handled that. We talked about that early on. All I want him to be is the best VJ King he can be, and he understands that.”
James and King are comparable in the respect that they are extremely talented basketball players, but they also have several differences. King is 6-foot-7 as a freshman and is still growing. James was 6-4 as a freshman and is now 6-8 and a star NBA player.
King appears to be a better outside shooter than James was as a freshman. James’ ability to rebound, pass and defend as a freshman was better than King. Both can get to the basket for layups and dunks, but James showed more power.
Joyce loves both of their skill sets but says each is a different player. One thing that is not in question is the desire to continually improve.
“VJ has got a great work ethic,” Joyce said. “I think he saw this summer how Nick and those other guys got in the weight room. He got in the weight room in the offseason and did those kinds of things and got stronger. Sometimes he called my house too often to get in the gym, and I’m like: ‘Hey, man, I’m not coming there today.’ He has got that kind of work ethic that he wants to get better. As long as you continue to have that kind of work ethic and stay humble and don’t get caught up in the headlines, he will be fine.”
King and Hudson have several Division I college scholarship offers but remained focused on this season as St. V-M secured big wins over Cleveland Benedictine, Firestone, Cleveland St. Ignatius, Mentor Lake Catholic, Brush, Buchtel, Walsh Jesuit, North Canton Hoover and Canton McKinley in the regular season.
Wells, a Lake Erie College recruit, has been a consistent scorer and rebounder.
The Irish have dispatched Fairless, Triway, Tuslaw, Alliance, Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy, Warrensville Heights and Vincent Warren in the tournament.
A win over Bishop Watterson would give St. V-M its seventh state title in boys basketball. James won three, and since then has earned an NBA title to go along with NBA MVP awards, Olympic gold medals and millions of dollars.
King’s future appears to be bright, too.
“Coming from a different state and coming into this team with the coach and seniors, they really accepted me,” said King, whose family relocated to Akron after formerly living in Charlotte, N.C., and in Cleveland.
“I was kind of nervous at first. ... They really showed me the ropes and I have gotten really comfortable with them. It has been fun, the process of coming together as a team.”
King smiled as he talked and showed the humbleness also found in Wells and Hudson.
“One thing that really impressed me was he did get in the weight room,” Wells said. “He didn’t skip any days. He was in the gym as much as me. He just bought into the system, which was great. He does make freshman mistakes, but he sure doesn’t play like a freshman, so we accept it. He is a great player.”