Columbus East senior forward Connor Umphress couldn’t have imagined that 16 games into his final high school season his team would be stuck at average.
But 8-8 is in the books with the Olympians, who were 17-5 a year ago, working hard to produce a special finish to their season and the very talented Umphress’ career.
Umphress, who is averaging 13.2 points after scoring at an 18.6 clip last season, took time Tuesday to talk about his team’s struggles, the hope for a big finish, his ability to be a prolific scorer and his bright future as a member of the University of St. Francis men’s basketball team.
Q. What lessons do you learn when your team struggles during a season?
A. “It hasn’t been perfect. The key is that you have to keep your heads up. You have to keep doing what coach (Brent Chitty) tells you to do. We’ve had some close losses that we can fix. And I think we have learned to battle through adversity. Obviously, we have not had the year we wanted to have.”
Q. Do you consider yourself a shooter?
A. “Yeah, I guess that is where I am at my best. But I have had to adapt my game with this team in that I need to be more of a (all-around) scorer. Generally, when you talk about shooters, you are talking about 15 feet and back. I can shoot from there, but I do wish there is more to my game than that. I hope people say, ‘He is a kid who gets after you at both ends of the floor.'”
Q. Have you been forced to play a more uncomfortable role this season?
A. “No, absolutely not. Basically, I have been playing the same role as I did last year, but we just don’t have as much of an inside presence as we had with Bryce Lienhoop (now at St. Francis). I think there is a little more focus on me. Still, I think we have plenty of guys who can get that job done.”
Q. Your dad, Wiley Umphress, was a real good football player in high school and college. At your size (6-foot-5), why not football for you?
A. “My dad played all three, football, basketball and baseball. He played football at Indiana State. But I guess basketball meant the most to me. I played baseball through eighth grade, and I played wide receiver in eighth grade at Northside and had a successful season, but basketball just meant more.”
Q. We know you are a great shooter, have you ever tried to figure out how many shots you have taken over the years?
A. “Oh gosh, far too many to count. And generally, I have taken a mix of everything when it comes to shots. I’ve tried different moves from every spot.”
Q. If things aren’t going well, do you a spend a lot of time on your own, away from practice, just shooting?
A. “I will shoot until whenever I think I have fixed it. Some days that is 15 minutes and some days it is three hours. My shots weren’t falling real well this season (he is at 38 percent from 3-point range), so I started coming in with (assistant coach) Gary Young and working before practices. I think that really has helped.”
Q. Can you feel if you are going to have a good shooting game?
A. “The best thing for me is getting an early basket or to get to the free-throw line. I have a tendency to have my first shot be a 3-pointer. If I get that early easy basket, it gets my rhythm going. It just helps to see the ball going through the hoop.”
Q. How would you describe when you are locked in shooting?
A. “You just feel like nobody can stop you. It also is a time that can show how much passion you have for the game. You are jumping around and screaming. I think showing that passion is good for your teammates. It lets them know you care.”
Q. How do you get out of a shooting slump?
A. “By working hard when no one else is around. You are not going to get better just by working in practice. Everyone is working hard in practice. And you are going to have those times. There are times when you are not going to knock down shots.”
Q. Is your shooting technique your own, or did it come from somebody?
A. “I think it is mostly my own, with my dad helping me with my shot. He taught me about elevating on my shot and about the follow-through. I have pretty good rotation.”
Q. Who is your favorite basketball player?
A. “Probably Larry Bird. I liked the way he could score the basketball and how he helped build his team around him. He was a good leader, and he didn’t back down to anyone. I also guess, like everyone, I could say Michael Jordan.”
Q. Are you someone who watches a lot of basketball on television?
A. “I watch a lot of college basketball. I think it is way more about team basketball. The NBA is more of a show.”
Q. Does playing basketball in high school leave time for other things? Do you have a hobby?
A. “Basketball does fill my time, and it keeps me busy and on my toes. But I’ve still got plenty of time for my friends. Basketball really is my main hobby, so when I’m not playing basketball, I really want to relax and hang out.”
Q. What is the most enjoyable part of high school basketball for you?
A. “Team and family. Playing basketball absolutely is about building relationships and creating memories. A lot of it is the personal bonds you form. It’s about bus rides and hanging out with the guys.”
Q. You must be looking forward to playing at St. Francis. Do you expect your role in college to be different?
A. “I’m real excited about playing there with two of my best friends (Lienhoop and Columbus North graduate Evan Henry). But I do think my role will be pretty much the same. Everybody’s role going from high school to college does have to change a little, and I am going to a place where the offense is drive and kick, and I won’t be the drive. I just want to do my part as a freshman.”
Q. What has it been like to play for coach Brent Chitty?
A. “It’s been great. Nobody that I know is as passionate about the game. He is up at 3 a.m. scouting other teams for us.”
Q. What are you most proud of having accomplished at Columbus East?
A. “I think how much I’ve improved as far as mental toughness and on the defensive side, as far as being a leader. I think my greatest team memory is probably beating North, and our greatest accomplishments as a team are probably how close we have come at times, how much we improved last season going 17-5 even though we got younger overall and how we have improved not only as players but as people.”