For the first part of this season, the Mesa boys basketball team’s reputation was scarier than its bite.
The Jackrabbits lost in the 5A Division I quarterfinals last year to St. Mary’s, but with point guard Jahii Carson — the consensus best player in the state — returning for his senior year, the team was immediately elevated to title favorite.
After a Jan. 4 loss to Pinnacle, though, Mesa was 7-4 on the season with a pair of losses to Arizona teams. Carson was getting his 30 points per game, but his assist numbers were down and Mesa coach Shane Burcar wanted him to try harder on defense.
“We were watching the film of Pinnacle,” Burcar said. “I said, ‘Here’s the deal: We just lost to Pinnacle. If you’re so (darn) good, we can’t be losing to these people.’”
Carson bought in, and the Jackrabbits have won four straight since. They edged No. 4 Desert Vista by a point on Friday, then posted an impressive 67-60 victory over top-ranked Mountain View on Monday in the MLK Basketball Classic at Wells Fargo Arena.
Afterward, Burcar downplayed the impact of the win.
“Statement game? No,” he said. “It’s just Mountain View-Mesa. It doesn’t matter if it’s June or January, it’s a ballgame.”
While Burcar isn’t buying into the game’s importance, it does seem to realign Mesa alongside Mountain View and Corona del Sol as the three top teams in 5A-I.
The Jackrabbits have now beaten both teams this season, showing that when they are going well, it is tough for anyone to slow them down.
“We don’t feel like anybody should beat us, and when we come out and play like this, I don’t think anybody can,” Carson said.
Mesa’s biggest key will be the production from everyone other than Carson. Against Mountain View, Carson had a season-high eight assists. Besides Desmond Medder, the Jackrabbits don’t have many other players that can create their own shot.
However, with Carson carrying that load and drawing the defense’s attention, it usually leads to good looks for the other players.
“We can still make layups, right?” Burcar said.
Mesa isn’t without holes. Without Blondy Baruti, Adam Milkovich and Danny Powell from last season, the Jackrabbits lack interior size. However, the team’s athleticism and pressure defense is improved, which could be the key to its fortunes.
“We want to see if you can get past us,” Carson said. “That’s one of our strengths that we haven’t really used, but now we’re starting to use it on teams.”
Mesa thinks it has turned a corner. Since the team has a shortage of outside shooters and lack an interior presence, the battle to win a state championship won’t be easy.
But with Carson, the Jackrabbits will always be in the conversation. And if others continue to step up, they will be at the forefront.
“This is just a step to get a state championship,” forward Charles Croxen said after beating Mountain View. “That’s always been the goal. Jahii’s going to put up his numbers. If we have other people putting up numbers, too, we’re hard to beat.”