When the Kokomo boys basketball team hits the floor for home games this season, expect Memorial Gym to be charged up.
Athletic director Nick Sale said Kokomo has sold “several thousand” all-sports passes, approximately 10 times the usual amount. He hopes that home games still have a couple thousand tickets to sell for game days, and encourages fans to get tickets in advance online at kokomoathletics.com, and to show up early on game days.
The reason for the excitement? The Wildkats reached the Final Four of the Class 4A tournament last season in the first season with new coach John Peckinpaugh and now the squad returns en masse, led by breakout star Flory Bidunga inside.
The expectations both fuel excitement around the program, and are also the kind of outside pressure that the team has to let roll off its back.
“Obviously our expectations in our program are the same. They’ll always be the same — we want to first compete for an NCC title, and then compete in the state tournament,” Peckinpaugh said.
“Outside, in the community like Kokomo, which is awesome, I think the expectations are pretty lofty. I think if we stay with the process and continue to get better each day, we’ll have the chance to reach those expectations, but we have to stay in that mindset that we have a long ways to go. We’ve got to continue to get better.”
The Kats return their top 11 scorers — all eight members of the usual rotation as well as three who mixed in sometimes — from a 19-8 team that did not have a senior in the rotation. The Kats won their first sectional title since 2014 and their first regional since 2011 before falling to Chesterton in the North Semistate.
Bidunga, a 6-foot-10 junior center, returns after bursting onto the scene last season and earning KT All-Area MVP and All-State honors. In his first season of basketball in Indiana, he led the Kats by averaging 17.5 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.3 blocked shots per game. He’s got a rapidly expanding post game that leads to dunks and other high-percentage finishes around the rim. Bidunga hit an eye-popping 79% from the field. He topped the state in blocks and field goal percentage.
Bidunga is considered one of the nation’s top recruits for the class of 2024.
Around him are an array of guards of different strengths and a couple other key frontliners.
“Flory, he’s super talented,” Peckinpaugh said. “He gives us a lot of advantages, but the guys that go around him complement him so well. He not only makes them better, they make him a better player.”
Back to guard spots are 6-2 senior Shayne Spear (9.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists), 6-0 senior Zavion Bellamy (9.3 points, 2.9 rebounds, team-high 3.4 assists), 5-8 sophomore Zion Bellamy (6.7 points), 5-8 junior Reis Beard (3.8 points), 6-0 senior Jace Rayl (2.4 points), 6-0 senior Deundry Kirby (1.6 points), 6-0 junior Travien Bennett, 5-8 junior Rondell Greene, and 6-1 junior Jonavon Howard.
A key figure up front is 6-4 junior wing forward Patrick Hardimon, who mixed in 6.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2 assists. Brandon Bennett, a 6-6 senior forward (2.3 points, 2.1 rebounds), is another forward option. Also at forward spots are 6-5 junior Karson Rogers, and 6-5 sophomore Andrew Barker.
Spear was a third-team All-Area player who had a standout postseason shooting and driving. The Bellamy brothers are driving, shooting and passing threats, and Hardimon does a lot of gritty work at the forward spot, making an impact larger than his stats. Speaking of stats, Spear hit 50 3-pointers last season, Zion Bellamy 28, Hardimon 22, Zavion Bellamy 21 and Rayl 16.
“We’re a balanced team,” Peckinpaugh said. “We’re going to be very assertive in trying to pound the ball inside, whether that’s through a post feed or drive. If we buy into getting paint-touch shots, we’re going to be effective.
“[Defensively], we did a really good job down the stretch of following game plans and taking away other team’s strengths. I think our team is very capable of being a great, great defensive team with our personnel.”
The Kats are off to a late start this season due to the football team’s success, but well ahead of last season since the players all have a season’s worth of experience in Peckinpaugh’s system.
Seven players were on the football squad that made the semistate last week — including Spear, Kirby, Beard and both Bennetts — and have only had a week to get acclimated to basketball prior to tonight’s season opener at Westfield.
“I think we’ve had a really good five days of practice here with our whole team,” Peckinpaugh said. “I think guys seem to be focused and locked in. Ever since summer, we’ve been preaching stay in the moment, don’t look ahead.”
Peckinpaugh can preach that from experience. As a player at Muncie Central, Peckinpaugh went to two straight Class 4A championship games with the Bearcats in 2005 and 2006 under then coach Matt Fine.
“My high school coach was really good at keeping us focused and keeping us grounded,” Peckinpaugh said. “This week was really good in seeing the guys take ownership of the program. Player-coached teams are better than a coach-coached team.”