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Prep school helps Longar polish his game

By Pat Ruff

pruff@postbulletin.com

At Laurinburg Institute, where former Rochester John Marshall basketball standout Longar Longar has spent the last seven months, 18 players are headed to Division I colleges next school year on basketball scholarships.

Longar is one of them. The 6-foot-11 center is bound for the University of Oklahoma.

Longar was asked by telephone this week which of those 18 was Laurinburg's best this season. Laurinburg finished 30-6 and ranked fifth in the nation among prep schools, which annually house a bunch of the country's top high school talent.

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"There are too many egos on this team for all of us to say we had one go-to guy," Longar said with a chuckle. "That's a tough question. But I'd have to say the best guy on our team was myself. I really don't back down from anyone."

Judging from his statistics, it appears Longar -- not known as a boaster -- is telling it like it is. He averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots. The high-flyer, who brings to mind a young and less refined Kevin Garnett with his rare speed, agility and jumping ability for a 6-11 player, also continued to draw fans from their seats. The high-water mark came in late November in a tournament game in Delaware: 13 dunks, 15 rebounds and eight blocked shots.

"I set the tournament record for most dunks in a game in that one," Longar said. "But I also had five assists."

Challenging start

As good as things got for Longar, who Laurinburg assistant coach Tim Thomas also called his team's best player, he didn't show up at the school in Laurinburg, N.C., (population 18,000) quite ready to dunk on everybody.

Thomas called the first couple of months a major trial for him. With so many ballyhooed players on one team, and with a pack of them looking Longar in the eye (two others measuring 6-11, one 6-9), the native of Sudan, Africa, had a difficult time quickly establishing himself.

Thomas looks back with relief that Longar was finding his way at Laurinburg early this season (where he was getting his core credit requirements in order), instead of having gone straight from John Marshall to Oklahoma.

Better to ease your way in at a prep school than have your confidence battered that first year of college.

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"Had he been at Oklahoma in September, I think he'd have gotten eaten alive," said Thomas, whose primary basketball job at Laurinburg is to work with the low-post players. "Longar came here and also got eaten alive in September. When he first came here, I don't think he was used to playing against this kind of talent level every day. Mentally, he wasn't the strongest person. We'd be practicing, and he was real tentative."

After repeated tests from teammates and coaches, Longar found his way.

"He got stronger and more confident by (late) October," Thomas said. "Now, I think he is mentally confident enough that he can go up against anyone. That will be important next year, because going into (Oklahoma's) Big 12 Conference can be an intimidating situation. Going through all of these practices with us every day, and playing in all the tournaments he has, Longar has gotten a lot more mentally strong."

Gaining strength

Longar, who still needs to pass his ACT test to become eligible at Oklahoma (Thomas says that shouldn't be a problem), has used his time at Laurinburg to get stronger on and off the court.

They apparently don't leave you with much of a choice at this school, with its military-style regimen. For the basketball players, it starts each morning at 5:45 with a three-mile run from Laurinburg Institute to the school's St. Andrew's College practice site. Practices end at 7:30 a.m., and are followed by a three-mile return run to the high school campus. Players need to be showered and sitting in their first class by 8:15 a.m.

The school day ends at 3:10 p.m., and is often followed by another basketball practice.

Longar says it was precisely the kind of tight-ship approach he needed, especially as he eyes the demands of college athletics.

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"I thought it was good for me," said Longar, whose down time mostly came when he and his teammates continually packed the team's 15-passenger van, traveling the country for tournament destinations. That included one trip all the way from North Carolina to Canada.

"When I get to college, it's not going to be easy; it's going to be even tougher than this has been," Longar continued. "People here are trying to prepare you for the next level. I appreciate it."

Longar also appreciates the strides he's been able to make on the basketball court. His biggest improvement seems to be his overall strength, though it's an area he and Thomas still feel needs considerable work for him to star at Oklahoma. Longar, lifting weights four times a week, has gone from 210 pounds upon arriving at Laurinburg, to his current 225. In the next year, he hopes to up that to 235.

"I love lifting weights," Longar said. "Once you find out how much the weight room will help your game, you really want to do it. At this level, if you don't lift weights, you're not going to make it."

Steady improvement

Longar says he has also advanced his offensive low-post game, refining moves and playing with more force next to the basket. When he is not scoring, Longar dedicates himself to rebounding.

He's done the latter with steady prodding from the Laurinburg coaching staff.

"It used to be if a rebound didn't come right to Longar, he didn't go after it," Thomas said. "To be a great rebounder, you can't just rebound in your area. Longar is doing (it the right way) now. He's really improved as a rebounder.

"Really, he's gotten better in almost every area."

Thomas has seen enough from Longar, who he considers as athletic a high school big man as there is in the country, to offer up a bold prediction.

"If I was a betting man, I'd say he will wind up playing in the NBA," he said. "You just don't see people with the skills he has, guys who are 6-11 who can run the floor the way he can and also step out and shoot the ball like he does. Plus, Longar knows what he wants and he's willing to do what it takes."

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