JONESBORO — Jonesboro’s ambition goes beyond making the state tournament.
Wes Swift’s Golden Hurricane won three state championships and finished second three times from 2012-18. Jonesboro continued its run of state tournament appearances the last two years, springing a first-round upset of Russellville last season, but didn’t quite reach the heights of the previous eight.
“We had a really good run there, six out of seven years where we went to the finals and eight years in a row where we went at least to the semifinals,” said Swift, who is entering his 12th season as Jonesboro’s head coach. “We knew we had a couple of years coming here where it just cycled down. It is what it is. We’ve been solid, but not where we were.
“Everybody thinks we were down, but the expectations are high and that’s not a bad thing. This team right here, we’re trying to get it back to where we’re playing for it at the end.”
Most of the key players from last year’s team that finished 17-11 and reached the Class 5A state quarterfinals are back, including the top two scorers in 5-foot-11 senior guard Keyln McBride and 6-1 junior guard Jesse Washington. Amarion Wilson, a 5-10 junior, returns at point guard and 6-2 junior guard Kavon Pointer is another returning regular.
Jonesboro returns other key players in its rotation and adds talented sophomores to a mix that figures to make the Hurricane one of the top teams in Class 5A.
“We’re going to be more experienced. These guys have all been through it, a couple of them for two years now, and the guard play should be a strength,” Swift said. “When we beat Russellville, who at the time was ranked No. 1 in the state in our classification, on their home floor in the first round last year, we ended that game with five turnovers. That’s really good at the pace we play. Even against Maumelle when we lost, we were in single-digit turnovers. I’m hoping that continues.
“Our toughness on the defensive end with these small guards has to improve. We’re just going to have to be a tougher team on the defensive end and, if that happens, I think we can go farther.”
McBride earned all-state honors while averaging 18 points last season. He scored 46 points in Jonesboro’s two state tournament games combined.
Swift said McBride may be the best shooter he’s ever coached.
“I’ve had some really, really good shooters, but nobody has shot in what I call that 90-50-40 club. He’s shooting 92 percent career free throws at JHS, 52 percent from 2 and 45 percent from 3,” Swift said. “There’s just not that many kids out there who shoot the number of shots that he shoots and shoots that percentage. Last year he was a guy who was circled on everybody’s scouting report, so it’s not like he’s getting shots off our best player because everybody is over there helping with him and he’s sitting out there shooting. He’s circled, they’re holding him and doing everything they can, and the guy is still putting up incredible numbers.”
Washington was Jonesboro’s No. 2 scorer last season at better than 14 points per game. He earned all-state tournament honors after producing 15 points and eight rebounds against Russellville, then closing the season with 18 against Maumelle.
Swift said Washington is a talented shooter in addition to being the Hurricane’s best on-ball defender and a solid rebounder who averaged more than five per game last season.
“Jesse’s a guy that his best attribute on the offensive side is shooting the basketball. He likes to shoot the 3,” Swift said. “We’re really working hard on him trying to get fouled more this year, really getting to the rim and playing that in-between game.”
Wilson and Washington are both attracting NCAA Division I interest, Swift said, including offers from Arkansas State last season.
Bradley Richardson, a 5-9 senior, also handles the ball quite a bit and Ryan Rouse, a 5-11 senior, was a key player off the bench last season.
A strong sophomore class includes 6-7 guard/forward Isaac Harrell, 6-4 forward Devarius Montgomery and 5-11 guard Deion Buford-Wesson.
Swift said Harrell has had a good year in the weight room and is already attracting a lot of Division I interest. Montgomery has shown a willingness to defend and chase every rebound, Swift said, and Buford-Wesson might be the team’s most athletic player.
Jonesboro’s inside game is expected to feature players who have been on the Hurricane football team this fall, 6-3 senior forwards Chamar Anderson and Connor Clark.
“We’re hoping between Connor and Chamar they can fill a role defending people 6-7 to 6-11 because we’re going to play a lot of them this year,” Swift said.
In looking at the 5A-East conference, Swift said most observers would expect Jonesboro and Marion, a state semifinalist last season, to be at the top. Defending state champion West Memphis is another team to watch.
And on a statewide level, Jonesboro won’t be the only 5A team dreaming of a state championship finish in Hot Springs.
“Our classification, it’s always been really good, always, and a lot of times, people would consider it better than the top classification on the basketball side, especially on the boys,” Swift said. “I don’t know that we’ll have the No. 1 team in the state, I think we’ll be right there in the top three in our classification, but I don’t know that any classification is deeper. We were thinking about it the other day and I could name eight teams right now out of 32 that have a legitimate chance to win it.
“I think your first-round games in the state tournament, there will be multiple games where there will be top 10 teams matched up. Somebody will go home that’s a top 10-ranked team overall in the whole state. That’s how good I think our classification is.”