DECATUR — Eisenhower basketball coach Rodney Walker loves to talk about this year's Panthers team.
It's been years in the making. Three keys players — junior Cameron Rowe, sophomore R.J. Walker and freshman Brylan Phillips — will all share the same floor again after years of being teammates in summer leagues and middle school growing up.
The trio will get their first action of the season at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday when the Panthers face Peoria in the first round of the Team Soy Capital Turkey Tournament at Stephen Decatur Middle School. MacArthur will begin its season at the Turkey Tournament on Tuesday against Harvey Thornton and Mount Zion will debut at 6 p.m. Wednesday against Springfield Southeast.
Rowe returns as one of the fastest guards in the Central State 8, and as a freshman R.J. earned a reputation as a dangerous outside shooter, hitting on 38 percent of his 3-point attempts.
“It is going to be an exciting group and a very high-skilled group," Rodney said. "We are a good shooting team, a good scoring team and we have a good basketball IQ.
“We have a lot of weapons that we haven’t had before. We have several ball handlers instead of one. We have several shooters instead of one — it is going to be exciting.”
Phillips arrives as a highly anticipated local prospect who is already attracting attention from colleges.
“Brylan is the purest point guard I have seen in a long time," Rodney said. "He sets a great pace and has a high skill set. Even as a freshman we will need him to lead the same way he did on the football field.”
On the Eisenhower football team, Phillips became the starting quarterback over the course of the season and gained some valuable team-leading experience.
“He hung in there and he worked on his leadership skills and his toughness," Rodney said. "I’m pretty sure there are some guys who think they can rough him up on the court and he has become a physical little guard.”
At last year’s Turkey Tournament, the Panthers, led by seniors Quylan Young and Yansyn Taylor, made it to the championship game before losing to Bolingbrook.
With Young now playing at Lincoln College and Taylor at Illinois Valley Community College, R.J. Walker knows it is his time.
“All the upperclassmen are basically gone so I’m going to have to step up," R.J. said. "It is basically our team now and (Cam and I) have experience on varsity so we have to let (the freshmen) know how it is."
The popularity of the Turkey Tournament can be a surprise for some players who aren’t expecting large crowds eager for the basketball season to get underway.
“All these kids look forward to playing in the Turkey Tournament and it is a big stage for some of them,” Rodney said. “R.J., Cam and Brylan have been in the fire with big crowds with AAU so the crowds don’t affect them too much but you never know with the new guys who haven’t been in the fire.”
For Rowe, who will co-captain the team with R.J., the Turkey Tournament has gotten easier over the years and offers a chance for the Panthers to get off to a good start, though the competition is tough.
"There’s not too much pressure," Rowe said. "My freshman year it was hard but sophomore year was straight and junior year is going to be fine. It is normal to us now.
"We have to take it one step at a time so once we get those regular season wins. Regionals will be our next move and then maybe sectionals."
While Rodney isn't worried about his team's reaction to the Turkey Tournament, MacArthur coach Ron Ingram said first-night jitters are a concern for the Generals. MacArthur graduated much of last year's team, including H&R Macon County Player of the Year Armon Brummett and first-teamer Amir Brummett.
"We're rebuilding," Ingram said. "The past few years we've just kind of reloaded when we had spots to fill. Luckily we have some good players to rebuild with — we're not starting at the bottom.
"I'm not really worried about how we're going to play over the course of the season, but we don't have a lot of guys who have Turkey Tournament experience and I think we're going to be fighting the crowd a little. Add Thornton to that — they're very fast — and it's a concern."
The Generals’ roster features two senior transfers from Eisenhower in K.J. Taliferro and Keon Jones. They'll team with 6-7 senior forward Kaeden Lawary, who is looking to establish himself as the Generals’ leading force.
"(K.J.) and Keon can both shoot well and get to the basket — they're going to provide scoring," Ingram said. "And you know they can defend well coming from Eisenhower and playing for Rodney.
"And I think Kaeden is going to shine this year. He rebounds, runs the court and blocks shots, and he's working on his jumper."
Mount Zion is also in rebuilding mode. The Braves graduated their top four scorers, including Jonah Smith and Trevor Durand. Junior Jayse Booker is their top returning player.
NOTE: Two notable recent retirees will be honored between the first and second game on Tuesday.
Retired Herald & Review Executive Sports Editor Mark Tupper and retired Millikin women's basketball coach Lori Kerans will be presented with the tournament's "Decatur Heroes" award.