During a year that initially looked to be derailed by injuries, Paul VI’s youngest stars rose to the occasion and kept the train on its track. Now the Panthers are back at full strength, and they’re ready to compete with anyone in the country. Last year it looked like PVI would have one of the best backcourts in the nation, consisting of friendly tobacco-road rivals Jeremy Roach (Duke commit) and Anthony Harris (current UNC freshman). After they both suffered horrific ACL tears within a month of each other in the beginning of the season, Coach Glenn Farello knew everyone would have to step up. He made it clear that it was more humane than “Next man up” as he noted the guys really rallied around Roach and Harris. Specifically, Trevor Keels and Dug McDaniel surpassed expectations as underclassmen, both earning First Team All-WCAC honors (Keels also won Co-Player Of The Year). But, it was far from a two man show, everyone did their part every single night. While there aren’t usually moral victories in the WCAC, last year’s efforts showcase the family and culture that Coach Farello preaches. In today’s world, the word “culture” seems to get thrown around by coaches, executives and almost anyone in charge. Everyone tries to claim they have a great culture, but no one can explain why. You either see it, or you don’t. In my past four years covering this program, I’ve seen it first hand. The torch was passed from Aaron Thompson, to Brandon Slater, to Anthony Harris and now to Roach and Will Paige. These leaders make sure that the standard is the standard, it never deviates. The foundation is there, and now the Panthers are chasing the hardware they feel belongs to them. Here are some of the key pieces:

Jeremy Roach
Roach is fully recovered from his ACL tear a year ago and he’s back for a senior statement year. We saw the Duke commit take a huge leap as a sophomore, as he turned into the primary ball-handler that controlled the game while also giving out buckets. Unfortunately, he was robbed of continuing that progress last year, but he’s come back better than ever. In the open gym, he showed off his elite pace and control. It’s easy to get rattled in the WCAC, but Coach Farello sleeps well knowing he has Roach at the helm. While Dug McDaniel and Trevor Keels had breakout seasons last year, I have no worries about Roach coming back into the fold. You can never have enough smart ball handlers on the floor that can create for themselves, and others. He’s been a consistent three point shooter throughout all levels of his career so far, and that will be very valuable for the Panthers this year. Roach’s ability to slash, pull up and dish while on the ball, combined with his shooting range off the ball, will make him a nightmare cover for opponents.

Trevor Keels
Keels was Co-WCAC Player Of The Year last year and it’s safe to say he took the league by storm. He showed promising signs as a freshman, but was not expected to be the go-to guy for Paul VI. But, when Anthony Harris and Roach went down, Keels rose to the occasion and never looked back. He was a freight train going downhill all year and also posted elite shooting numbers from deep. There’s no doubt Keels can score with the best of them, but I was impressed by his playmaking in the open gym. You could tell he made a conscious effort to add that into his approach to the game, and it’s something I’d love to see continue throughout the season. Coming off a strong summer with Team Takeover 17s, expect Keels to keep that positive momentum going for the Panthers.

Dug McDaniel
Everytime I watch McDaniel, I become more impressed. As someone who deeply appreciates Basketball IQ and passing savants, McDaniel is somewhat of a movie every time he touches the floor. Whatever he gives up in size, he more than makes up for it with his understanding of the game. Not only does he see the game two plays ahead, but he already knows how to deceive the defense with his eyes and scoring gravity, which is very impressive for someone who’s only played a year of high school basketball. We know that McDaniel has elite touch around the rim, he regularly converted acrobatic finishes and tear-drop floaters last year, but he visibly put in a ton of work on his jumper in the offseason. McDaniel was drilling pull-up and catch and shoot threes from all over the arc, and didn’t think twice about any of them. I can’t think of many teams that have a better backcourt trio than Roach-Keels-McDaniel.

Will Paige
The senior leader contributes more to this team than any spectator could ever imagine. Paige is vocal, scrappy and gives 110% no matter what the occasion is. He isn’t the biggest guy on the floor, but he is an absolute menace. His on-ball defense is second to none, Paige’s quick hands and feet combined with his unmatched intensity create a dreadful night for opposing ball handlers. On the offensive end, he is relentless while getting to the rim and can explode to the basket. If Paige can consistently knock down threes for Paul VI this season, it would be huge for his individual development and the team’s success. Regardless of the time, place or score, you know Will Paige is going to outwork everyone else on the court. His energy is contagious, and while it might not show up in the box score, it will be essential for PVI to hoist the WCAC in February.

JoJo Freeman
Freeman is the definition of a flamethrower. Ever since his freshman year, Freeman has just found ways to put the ball in the bucket. Now, as a senior, he’ll carry a ton of weight as the team’s knockdown shooter who can heat up in an instant. Freeman arguably played his best game of the year on the biggest stage, he is never phased by the moment. Having a shooter and overall offensive threat that is as consistent as Freeman is extremely valuable in the WCAC. The Panthers have a lot of players that can get to the rim, and Freeman’s spacing will be crucial for creating driving lanes.

Deshawn Harris-Smith
This open gym was my first time seeing Harris-Smith and I was very impressed. While he’s just a freshman, he doesn’t carry himself like one on the court, and I mean that in the absolute best way possible. Harris-Smith was absolutely fearless on both ends and got to the rim at ease. At one point, he was really having his way, and caused one of the Paul VI coaches tell the defender “get in the weight room, because you just got bodied by a freshman.” Harris-Smith has an exciting future in Fairfax.

Christian May
Coming off an injury with Team Takeover in the fall, May didn’t participate in the full open gym but it was good to see him back on the court again. The sophomore guard is bouncy and very reliable from behind the arc. Once he’s 100% healed, May should provide a spark of energy and shooting off the bench for the Panthers.

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