If at first you don’t succeed, try defense.
That’s the motto for coach Josh Brenning’s Vista PEAK boys basketball team this season, where an offense-first approach — sparked largely by the arrival of transfer Romello Washington — fizzled, but has been replaced with a dedication to defense that’s reflected in the win-loss column.
With the new philosophy now deeply ingrained, Brenning’s Bison have won nine straight games — and 11 of the last 12 — and sit firmly in control in the chase for the Colorado 7 championship.
“We’ve gone more of a defensive focus, which fits our team and personnel better,” Brenning said. “We tried offense as our main thing, but it just wasn’t clicking.
“Now, our practices are mostly defense and we’ve really thrived. Guys have bought into that and that’s half the battle of coaching.”
It wasn’t that the losses Vista PEAK (13-4 overall, 8-0 in the Colorado 7) suffered earlier in the season were bad — 2A power Lutheran topped the Bison on a buzzer-beater and they were competitive in losses to 5A Aurora Central, Rangeview and 10th-ranked Grand Junction — but Brenning realized that he’d somewhat misjudged the things some of his players were capable of.
With his team scoring in the 40s and 50s much more than in the 60s and 70s, Brenning saw defense as a better answer.
As one of his coaching mentors — Colorado great Ron Vlasin — used to preach, a successful team should always have its best defensive player on the floor as much as possible, even if he’s not much of a scoring threat.
Enter senior Ayo Sanusi, who had come off the bench for the first part of the season, but has a blend of speed, toughness and tenaciouness found in stalwart defensive players.
“I was sitting at home on Christmas break thinking ‘I have one of the best defensive players in 4A and I have him on the bench, what am I doing?’” Brenning said.
So he did something about it and gave a larger role to the versatile Sanusi —who also plays football and runs track at Vista PEAK — which helped things take off for the Bison. Sanusi averages a team-best 3.1 steals per game, almost as many as points scored (3.3 per contest).
On Vista PEAK’s winning streak, which helped the Bison crack the Associated Press’s Class 4A top 10 for the first time in the No. 10 spot — its twice held opponents in the 30s and two others in the 40s.
Elizabeth, another quality Colorado 7 team, had a height advantage that helped it score a lot of points against Vista PEAK, but the Bison still managed to sweep the Cardinals with a 75-72 win on Jan. 10 and a 88-78 victory Feb. 4.
Junior Noah Butler saw the transformation with Sanusi in the starting lineup.
“Ayo’s always able to guard the other team’s best offensive player; he’s a little short, but he’s strong, fast and can pick somebody up full court,” Butler said of the 5-foot-9 Sanusi. “His stamina is pretty amazing, too, so he can be out there a long time and give the other players a break.”
With Sanusi setting the tone defensively, it’s actually led to increased scoring on the other end through an uptick in transition baskets that weren’t previously there.
Butler and Washington — who each average 2.5 steals per game themselves — add quickness to Vista PEAK’s defense as well and a handful of times each game find themselves with easy layups.
Those easy baskets, plus the ability to get to the free throw line, has Washington’s scoring averaging soaring to 18.2 points per game — nearly four points more than he averaged last year at Kennedy.
“We’ve been stressing defense, more defensive drills and footwork and getting stronger and faster on defense,” Washington said. “We knew we had the offense, but that doesn’t win games. …Working on everything we’re not good at has made us better.”
Improved defense combined with ability of Washington or Butler — who is averaging 11.1 points per game — or both to score 25 points on a given night has Vista PEAK believing it can compete with some of the best teams in 4A.
With Sanusi and Washington providing leadership as part of the first senior class in school history, plus explosive Butler and fellow junior Isaiah Young — an ultra-athletic post player — sophomore guard Alex Hawkins, impactful freshman Keisan Crosby and a number of other role players, the Bison feel equipped to compete with anybody.
They certainly haven’t batted an eyelash when Brenning took them to watch teams such as No. 2 Valor Christian — Vista PEAK’s opponent on Feb. 15 — and they think they can play at that level.
“We’re looking to get very deep in the playoffs, we feel we have the components to get as far as the Final Four or maybe even further,” Butler said.
Courtney Oakes is Sports Editor of the Aurora Sentinel. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or email@example.com. Twitter: @aurorasports. Facebook: Aurora Prep Sentinel