To put it bluntly, fans are spoiled.
Capacity crowds inside Fairmont’s gym have grown accustomed to blowouts in recent years, but the Golden Tornadoes haven’t won convincingly enough to satisfy the fanbase over the first 10 contests. Up-and-down efforts defensively have been met with jeers and come as a shock for a group that has been one of the state’s best in that department each of the last two seasons.
Head coach Michael Baker says he can easily pinpoint why Fairmont hasn’t looked like Fairmont thus far.
“We’re not as healthy as we want to be,” he said before Tuesday’s practice. “Seven wins and three losses is good for us right now considering the circumstances. I don’t think anyone is pressing the panic button around here, but people have to realize we’re still working to get it right.”
Perhaps the bar has been set too high, a preseason hype overflow as a state title contender. We were blinded in 2010 when the Golden Tornadoes ran off 20 consecutive wins and captured a No. 1 ranking before falling in Burlington during the second round of the playoffs, a far too early exit for a squad tabbed as the state’s best. Throughout that season, Fairmont’s struggles in the halfcourt and at the free-throw line were masked by superior athleticism and talent. The quality of competition was weak and the Golden Tornadoes were rarely challenged, creating a false sense of dominance.
Last fall, Fairmont again wiped the floor with the Three Rivers Conference — the Golden Tornadoes’ last league loss came in February 2010 — before succumbing to Reidsville in the form of a 26-point third-round lashing. The playoff reality check dampened a successful 23-5 campaign, but didn’t stop the buzz surrounding this season when news of Kwinton Hinson’s arrival this summer spread like wildfire throughout the small town.
The 6-foot-4 son of former Fairmont star Wesley Hinson was a clone of his father but with more bounce, so the legend goes.
A month in however, despite an efficient 21.8 points per game, anticipation has turned into bewilderment as many have questioned the effect Hinson has had on Fairmont’s team chemistry after he pushed his way into the starting lineup. Hinson had fantastic outings in contests against Hoke and Dillon, S.C., but the Golden Tornadoes surprisingly dropped all three games.
For the supposed deepest team in the county, Fairmont should’ve at least won two of those, right?
“Nobody said we would go undefeated,” Baker said referring to expectations. “Kwinton has added another talented element to our basketball team, but regardless of any single individual or play, we’ve got to start beating some of those teams that are good like Hoke and Dillon. No disrespect to any team we’ve played, but I don’t think we have lost to anyone we shouldn’t have.”
Hinson, an unknown sophomore who moved to Fairmont from Las Vegas, plays a ton of minutes and has blossomed into the team’s top offensive weapon and rebounder, splitting time on the perimeter and in the post. Hinson’s still adjusting to Baker’s offense and understanding the intricacies of the program’s hectic defensive sets while building a relationship with teammates.
This is where Baker comes in, to manage the distribution of shots between players and determine each individual’s unique skill set within the team concept. Hinson’s shot volume or demand for the basketball on every possession is a good problem to have.
He has taken some of the pressure off of Fairmont’s frontcourt with Charlton Townsend sidelined until Jan. 8, but scoring hasn’t been the problem this season according to Baker. Defense and a rash of injuries directly correlate to all three defeats and a few closer-than-expected victories.
“We’re giving up too many points, that’s it,” Baker said. “We don’t have the personnel right now to apply defense like we’re used to doing with so many injuries. We’ve got guys that can score, but teams are getting second-shot chances and that’s a little unusual.
“When you take a person like Chaut off the team, it hurts chemistry. He is our leader. He gives us a presence on the floor that we haven’t had all season.”
Tonight, Fairmont travels to South Brunswick where Baker expects another challenging non-conference affair. The Golden Tornadoes have won three straight since being upset in the Robeson County Shootout opener, a loss that snapped the program’s string of three consecutive trips to the final.
“We know everybody gives us their best game because we’re Fairmont,” Baker said. “When you’re good, teams want to beat you. Conference is the main thing we’ve got to be concerned about though.
“It’s okay to have the problems we have right now at this point in the season.”
The 1993 state champion knows what he’s doing as Fairmont’s puppeteer and has the track record to prove it. This year’s team is one of the most talented groups Baker has had in recent memory, but it’s tough to get a feel for these Golden Tornadoes until we see a healthy, cohesive starting five.
And so far, we haven’t.