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July 23, 2014

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Findlay Prep begins defending its national crown

Floor general Cory Joseph returns as main Pilot from 33-0 squad

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Rob Miech

Findlay Prep coach Mike Peck in a press conference after guiding the Pilots to a 74-66 victory over Oak Hill Academy in the final of the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational at Georgetown Prep. Peck improved to 65-1 in two seasons coaching the Pilots.

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Findlay Prep point guard Cory Joseph runs drills during a practice at the Henderson International School.

The nail of Findlay College Prep basketball coach Mike Peck’s left index finger is in fine shape, as if he just had a manicure. It’s ready for its close-up.

Tonight, that might change when the Pilots begin defending their ESPN High School Invitational national championship in their season opener against National College Prep of California.

Findlay associate head coach Todd Simon wagered lunch with Peck that the nail will return to nub status in one week. Sometimes Peck gnaws on it so much it bleeds.

“My nervous habit,” Peck said. “I pick at it and peel it. My wife says it’s deformed. But let me tell you, it’s healthy and looks as good as it ever has. I’m not picking at it, but I might kick a few more chairs.”

Don’t expect Peck to start mimicking Bob Knight. He is 65-1 in his two seasons piloting the Pilots, which includes the scintillating 33-0 title-winning squad of 2008-09, and he’s done it with poise.

Tonight, however, there will be no banner-raising ceremony at the Henderson International School, with which Findlay is affiliated and in whose gym the national champs play their homes games.

The company that’s producing the banner hasn’t finished it.

“But there won’t be anything like that,” Peck said of a celebration. That was last season.

Peck might be concerned about defending his championship without Avery Bradley (who has moved on to Texas) and D.J. Richardson (Illinois) – Simon looked at him Wednesday and said neither Bradley nor Richardson is walking through that office door.

But Cory Joseph, the motor of that unblemished Pilots of 2008-09, is back, and there likely isn’t a better prep point guard in the nation.

He averaged 10.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.1 steals, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3-1, as a junior. Plus, Joseph shot 50 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

He is ranked as the No. 7 prospect in the nation, according to the recruiting service Rivals.com, and he’s visited Texas, Connecticut, Villanova and Minnesota.

Peck said Joseph is leaning toward taking his fifth and final official visit to UNLV, over Florida and Mississippi State.

Joseph will enjoy dumping it down low to senior power forwards Godwin Okonji and Tristan Thompson, who combined for 45 points and 15 rebounds in Findlay’s 30-point thrashing of a scrimmage foe last week.

“Those guys were men,” Peck said of his dynamic duo in the paint. “They stuck their chest out and said, This is OUR year. It was clear.”

Okonji has interests way beyond basketball. He’s so popular on the Henderson International campus, he was the first Pilot in the three-year history of the team to be named homecoming king last month.

The native of Nigeria has visited New Mexico and Hawaii, and he is reportedly interested in UNLV and San Diego.

Rated among the nation’s top 50 at his position, according to the recruiting service Scout.com, he shot 59.6 percent last season and averaged 6.1 rebounds.

Thompson, who signed with Texas on Wednesday, will supply Findlay with fire. The 6-9 lefty grew up with Joseph in the Toronto area and left New Jersey toward the end of last season.

He made an immediate impact with the Pilots, especially coming off the bench in Findlay’s three games in the ESPN national tournament in Maryland.

Thompson averaged 11.4 points and 6.6 boards in his five games as a Pilot, and he connected on 62.9 percent of his shots.

What pleased Peck about last Friday’s scrimmage was that Joseph wasn’t there; he went home to relax with his family and discuss his future.

So junior guard Nick Johnson, the nephew of the late Boston Celtics star Dennis Johnson, ran the show with nary a speed bump.

With his kangaroo-like vertical jump, Johnson will provide many highlights this season. He said he has never had it measured, but figure on a lift-off around 45 inches … at least.

He’s worth the price of admission.

The 6-3 leaper is rated as the fifth-best point guard in his class, and the Arizona native has been offered scholarships by Arizona, Arizona State, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, among others.

Rounding out Peck’s impressive first five is Jabari Brown, a 6-3, 205-pound senior from Oakland whom Rivals ranks as the 28th-best prospect in the land.

Peck believes Brown might be the team’s purest shooter since Curtis Dennis, who will play for New Mexico this season. UNLV is interested in Brown, and Arizona, Cal and Wake Forest have made offers.

Senior guard Marko Petrovic, the nephew of the late Croatian star Drazen Petrovic, is the elder statesman of Peck’s bench.

Winston Shepard, a 6-7, 200-pound native of Texas, is regarded as the No. 5 national prospect by Rivals, and sophomore power forward Dekeeba Battee-Aston will spell Okonji and Thompson.

Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, considered the best player in the country in his class for a few years, could become the first four-year Pilot.

Findlay is sweeping all of the preseason No. 1 rankings, which makes Peck a tad uncomfortable. But he understands the accolades.

“I’m probably more on edge than anybody,” he said, “but our returnees can handle it.”

By the end of next week, Peck’s left index finger will be the gauge of how well he’s handling his team’s national title defense. Simon just might be munching on a free lunch.

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