IHS

It didn’t take long for Mark Wilkins to make an impact on Independence’s basketball program.

The Eagles are enjoying their best start in six years in his first season as coach.

Independence is 20-5 and the Eagles are first in District 12-AAAA with a 5-1 record.

“I’ve been really pleased with our guys’ effort,” Wilkins said. “It’s never easy with a new coach coming in, but they’ve been really great to work with. Great attitudes.”

Wilkins replaced Doug Keil, who resigned a year ago.

Wilkins previously coached South Gibson, where he went 112-68 in six seasons, including three sectional appearances in his last four years.

Jett Montgomery has been leading the way for the Eagles.

The 6-foot sophomore guard is a Mr. Basketball nominee who’s averaging 23 points per game.

He’s made 74 3-pointers and he’s shooting 40% from beyond the arc.

“Oh, he’s been terrific,” Wilkins said. “I mean, he’s a relentless worker. All the success he’s having is because of the time he’s put in during the offseason.”

Montgomery is accurate from long range.

“I think really what separates him from other guys is that he can shoot it deep and really feels confident shooting it 2 or 3 feet behind the line,” Wilkins said.

He erupted for a career-high 40 points during a loss at Fairview one month ago.

“I think it’s just my teammates,” Montgomery said. “They’re finding me, getting good passes, playing defense and I’m just getting out and doing my thing.”

He scores in a variety of ways with layups, jump shots, foul shots and 3-pointers.

Belmont and Lipscomb have shown interest in him.

Independence runs an up-tempo style of play. It tries to push the ball upcourt quickly after a defensive rebound or steal.

The Eagles have improved rapidly after going 10-11 last year for their fourth consecutive losing season.

“To have the amount of success that we’ve had has been great, but our guys will be the first ones to tell you that we’re not really looking to have the best start. We’re looking to have the best finish,” Wilkins said. “We’re hoping that we can keep pushing and get better.”

Montgomery enjoys the Eagles’ fast pace.

“Play defense, rebound and run,’” Montgomery said.

Montgomery’s backcourt mate Owen Ries, a 6-3 senior who is averaging 11 points per game.

“He’s a prolific shooter right there beside Jett,” Wilkins said. “They push each other every day with their shooting drills we try to do.”

Ries and Montgomery form a good 1-2 combination.

“If one of us is having a bad night, the other one has to step up,” Ries said.

Senior point guard Tyus Anderson (7 apg), who nearly had a triple-double in points, rebounds and assists the other night, has also been productive.

Montgomery, Ries and Anderson wear uniform numbers 1, 2 and 3.

Cameron Bell, a 6-6 senior, is averaging 6.5 rebounds per game.

Matthew Witt, a 6-6 junior center, gives the Eagles a physical presence inside.

Freshman Tylan Lewis fits in well with his older teammates.

The Eagles are putting a new emphasis on history and tradition.

Each victory is recorded on a sign outside Independence’s locker room.

Tuesday’s 84-39 win over Nolensville was the in the 265th in the 18-year history of the program.

Independence seized a 15-0 lead in the first quarter and never let up.

Three of Wilkins’ family members coach basketball in West Tennessee.

His 68-year-old father, Mitch, boasts over 1,000 career wins during his 46-year career. He coaches the Gibson County girls.

“He’s just outworked people over the years and that’s why he’s had the success he has,” Wilkins said.

His oldest brother, David, coaches the Huntingdon girls and his other brother, John, coaches the McKenzie boys and girls.

Independence finishes its regular season with a difficult stretch against Ravenwood (17-7, 4-2), Franklin (20-6) and Columbia (19-3, 4-1).

“Yeah, it’s going to be tough,” Wilkins said. “They’re big games with great atmospheres, so we’ll find out what type of team we have if we can play in those type of environments.”

Columbia’s Q Martin hit two free throws with 4.1 seconds left, giving Independence its only district loss, 63-62, last week.

Independence edged Franklin 51-49 in a televised game two weeks ago.

“Obviously, they have a dynamic scorer in Montgomery, so you have to spend a lot of time and energy defending him,” Franklin coach Jason Tigert said. “He’s an elite scorer. He can score at all three levels, gets to the free-throw line and he’s got tremendous range.”

Tigert said Independence’s up-tempo style presents defensive challenges.

“They’re very tough in transition, so you’ve got to really commit to getting guys back so you can’t be as aggressive on the offensive boards and that limits scoring opportunities for your team,” Tigert said. “They’ve just really bought in to what coach has asked them to do and you can see them excited out there. They have significantly improved.”