The winningest boys basketball program in CIAC history returned to prominence in 2006, winning its first state championship in 16 seasons.
The Hillhouse Academics have maintained that level of excellence since thanks in great part to a strong group of players manning the point guard position.
Starting with Greg Jones, followed by Kwamaine McCarter, Freddie Wilson, Andre Anderson, and Tyler Douglas. The group combined to win five state championships in 12 seasons and reach the finals two other times.
Ta’Zhon Daniels has manned the point guard position for Hillhouse the last 2 1/2 seasons. His numbers have been solid and Hillhouse has had moderate success — but no titles to speak of.
“Last year definitely motivates me. Throughout the summer, I thought about the games we should have won or the games where I should have done more,” Daniels said. “It definitely has helped me become more of a floor general. I realize when I need to take over in certain games in order to help the team win.”
The Academics went 13-10 and were eliminated in both the SCC tournament semifinals and the CIAC Division I state tournament second round. While that may be a good postseason run for some programs, it’s not at 480 Sherman Parkway.
“Last season, Ta’Zhon didn’t truly understand the legacy of the jersey, the program, the alumni,” Hillhouse coach Renard Sutton said. “But now his approach to the game, his focus, his willingness to put it all on his shoulders to be a leader, be a good teammate and be a good player to coach are all there.”
Danels averaged 13.5 points, five assists and three steals for the Academics last season, earning both a spot on the Register All-Area team and the All-Southern Connecticut Conference First teams. This year, Daniels is averaging 15 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals per game.
Daniels said it was not a tough adjustment to replace Douglas in Hillhouse’s starting lineup because he had played the position enough before he arrived at Hillhouse.
The toughest adjustment was “the physicality” of SCC play and “figuring out when it was my turn to score.”
So in order to score in a variety of ways, including attacking the basket, and playing solid on defense, Daniels knew what he had to do: get stronger.
There were upper-body workouts, pullups, pushups, situps, working with weight balls. Daniels ended up putting on 15 pounds of muscle to get to 135. He said he put on almost 10 more pounds on his 5-foot-8 frame for this season.
“I’ve been a better-decision maker, a better defensive player and a better all-around scorer,” Daniels said. “I’m not putting my head down when I make a mistake. I fight through them and make better plays the next time down the floor.”
Having Evan Scott Alexander alongside has certainly helped open things up for Daniels. Cinceree Lash has been an option as well for the Academics.
“Evan definitely has helped out a lot. He has relieved some of the pressure off me,” Daniels said. “Sometimes, by the time the second half begins, he already has his 15 points and that gives me more room to score.”
Sutton has noticed the changes in Daniels’ game as well. He’s quick to point out Daniels’ average of between four and five steals per game.
“When I first saw him, I liked his ability to score the ball. Over the years, he has established other parts of his game. He has the ability to make people around him better,” Sutton said. “He can change the tempo of a basketball game on the defensive end and he can generate points not just for himself, but also for his teammates off the defensive end and that’s always a plus.”
It also has helped having one of those former Hillhouse point guards on the staff. Anderson, helped the Academics win state championships in both football and basketball before going on to star in football at the University of New Haven.
“I’ve tried to get him to see how the game slows down for you,” Anderson said. “With his basketball IQ, he has all the talent in the world. He is probably a better scorer than I was, but I was probably a better all-around point guard.”
Anderson understands about the growing pains. In the 2010 Class LL state final, he had to step in for Wilson, who fouled out early in the fourth quarter with Hillhouse leading Bridgeport Central. The game completely flipped and Central went on to win.
“It’s been well-documented. I had a lot of turnovers against Bridgeport Central. I needed that experience, to go through that and other struggles,” Anderson said.
Once the game slowed down for Anderson, he began to excel and ended up as the Register State Player of the year as a senior in 2013. It took time for Daniels, too, but now he has a full understanding of the game and is one of the SCC’s best players.
Where his future lies is still unknown, by Daniels’ own admission, he hasn’t gotten much college interest. The 17-year-old’s size may have something to do with that.
“I want to keep playing basketball. It doesn’t matter where I am,” Daniels said.
According to Sutton, Daniels is a B-C student who already is a (SAT) qualifier.
“The reality is when you are small in stature, it sets you back a level from my experiences. But I believe Ta’Zhon is a scholarship ballplayer,” Sutton said.
Daniels has already sustained an injury this season — he rolled his left ankle late in regulation against Windsor on Jan. 8, missed the overtime session and then the next two games.
“I didn’t realize what was going on. I tried to get up off the ground. I was definitely in a lot of pain. On a scale of 1-10, it was around a 9,” Daniels said.
But now Daniels is healthy and hoping to lead Hillhouse to a 25th CIAC state championship. A deep tournament run would cement Daniels’ legacy in the strong lineage of dominant point guards for the Academics.