M. Terry / SFVS

Taft’s Dynamic Duo — Kihei Clark and Makani Whiteside are proven talents on the 2017-18 Toreadors’ team.

The Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday breaks are often a busy time for basketball teams. Tournament games are often played over a four- or five-day stretch. It’s a great way for players to bond, maybe visit another city or country, and face a variety of competition.

What tournaments really are, in actuality,  are live lab experiments. Not that teams don’t mind winning them; the obviously talented ones usually do. But more often than not, coaches use November and December tournaments more so to find flaws, and correct what they possibly can. Once league play begins in January, the games are too valuable to experiment with, or give away.

“Many times you say things in practice, and [the players] go ‘uh-huh,’ but they’re not really sold on it until they experience it,” Taft High Coach Derrick Taylor said. “[With so many games] they can start to experience ‘almost’ being where you belong. But if you’re not where you belong — if you’re ‘almost’ there — that can lead to a basket for the other team.

“It’s about staying in your defensive stance longer, carrying out proper technique, how long do you stay disciplined. Those things show up when you play really good teams. And that’s what I wanted them to experience. We have a willing group, and we will adjust from our mistakes.”

Taft went through a five-week odyssey, beginning Nov. 27, traveling for games in Santa Monica, Texas, Hawaii, and most recently LaVerne for the Damien High Classic tournament, one of the best in Southern California. Sixty-four teams were slotted into four divisions — Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Taft and Birmingham were the only City teams entered in the top-tier Platinum Division.

The Toreadors had won their first 11 games before losing two of four in the Iolani Tournament in Hawaii in early December. More adversity came in the Damien Classic — Taft lost its opening game to Etiwanda High and also lost its “crossover” game to Roosevelt High of Eastvale, CA. The Toreadors did reach the consolation championship game on Saturday, Dec. 30, but fell to host Damien, making its record 14-5.

One college scout at the Damien tournament, who spoke on a condition of anonymity, said in the games he saw Taft play, “the teams that have been successful against them have been physical against them. Roosevelt had two kids that were super, super physical, hitting the offensive glass hard and getting second chance points. They made sure they pressed up defensively against [Taft’s] guards, stuff like that.

“I think Taft is more of a speed-oriented team; I think the thought is, when you’re playing them, you’re gonna have to out-tough them. Because, talent for talent, you’re gonna have a hard time if you try to play their style; I don’t know if you can match up with their guards. So where you can create an advantage, and where that started to happen, was by teams trying to ‘ground-and-pound’ them, make them work and bump them as much as you can on the perimeter.” 

The Toreadors now get a well-deserved break. Their next game isn’t until Jan. 10 — the West Valley League opener against rival El Camino Real High. It gives Taft a chance to correct the flaws that were detected and exploited by opponents in the tournaments.

Taylor, in his second stint as the Taft varsity coach which includes three City Section championships — he also won a Southern Section and CIF state title during a four-year-run at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower — is eager to get back to teaching for the next 6-7 practice days.

“We have a lot of guard types. We’re small but that’s the new day now,” said Taylor, referring to the popular style of “small ball,” where the offenses seek to score more from the perimeter and three-point line rather than concentrating their efforts inside the “paint.”

“We have quite a few kids that can play ‘above’ high school, which is always good. So the talent level is pretty good. Is it the best talent I’ve ever had? No. But it’s pretty good.”

He adds that “the City is very competitive. I think Westchester and Fairfax are a step above everyone else right now. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be beaten or we can’t play with them. I like our team. They’re really good kids and very good listeners. They want to be good and they’re open to coaching.”

The Toreadors depend heavily on outstanding guard Kihei Clark, a senior and returning All-City selection, and talented forward Makani Whiteside, a junior, to start and finish their offense. Clark is both quick and clever, needing just the smallest fissure to drive through a defense toward the basket. Whiteside can speed into the lane, too, but also has a nice mid-range, turnaround jump shot.

It was readily apparent that opponents were especially targeting them for as many bumps, shoves, hips and hand-checks that the referees would allow. The rough handling will in all likelihood increase as the season continues.

Whiteside has come to the same conclusion.

“I am seeing teams playing us more physical and trying to get into our heads, playing real hard,” said Whiteside, his upper torso wrapped in ice following the 81-76 overtime victory against Cajon High of San Bernardino on Dec. 29, where he scored 30 points.

“As time goes on, we’re starting to adjust to it. But I do notice it.”

He’s asked how Taft should respond.

“I feel we need to slow down. We tend to try and force things a lot. But we’re starting to understand the things we need to look for. We can create our own chemistry and play together.”

Clark noted that he needs to make sure he’s creating scoring opportunities for others besides himself and Whiteside, especially late in games.

“Different people are gonna step up in different games,” Clark said. “Different players will make shots at different times during the game. We do need other players to make shots in the fourth quarter to ease the pressure off me and Makani.”

Taft is determined to take back both the West Valley League and City Open Division titles from Birmingham this season. But the Toreadors have given other teams a blueprint on how to beat them.

They have from now until March to devise a counter method.