Barrow all-state floor general Travis Adams leads the two-time 3A state champions back to the big dance / Photo credit ASAA
It was easy to count out the two-time defending Class 3A state champion Barrow boys basketball team after two-time Gatorade Alaska Player of the Year Kamaka Hepa left for Oregon.
But coach Jeremy Arnhart knew the Whalers would bounce back.
He challenged his new-look team with a brutally tough non-conference schedule in which Barrow played so many Class 4A opponents from Anchorage you’d think the Whalers were in the Cook Inlet Conference.
“It’s good for our kids because we can compete at that level,” he told me. “Sure, we took some losses, but we learned, moved forward and got a lot better. If we were getting blown out, now that would be a different story.”
The Whalers [16-10] posted a 4-7 record against 4A competition this season, with victories over Wasilla, Thunder Mountain, Service and South. They also lost by two to Bartlett, four to East and nine to Dimond.
Battle-tested Barrow carries a six-game winning streak into the 3A state tournament, led by the 1-2 all-state punch of junior Travis Adams and freshman Anthony Fruean.
The 5-foot-10 Adams was the running mate of the 6-foot-9 Hepa as the two superstars helped Barrow win its first two state championships in 2015 and 2016.
As expected, Adams took it upon himself to take on more offensive responsibility with Hepa no longer on the team. The results weren’t pretty, though.
His game was off and so were the Whalers, who started 5-7 and lost more games than they did the previous two seasons combined.
“He put too much on his shoulders,” Arnhart said. ‘He was pressing, taking bad shots and turning the ball over. He kept thinking, ‘I’ve got to score, I’ve got to do everything.’”
Arnhart reminded Adams that he didn’t need to do it alone and convinced him to get back to the team-first player that helped him become one of the most exciting playmakers in Alaska.
“We have a good relationship,” the coach said.
Adams has scored a season high 29 this season, but he averages closer to 17 points per game because he hands off close to eight assists per game as well.
“That’s OK with him. He doesn’t have to be the leading scorer and I think that’s made him a much better player,” Arnhart said.
“He’s gotten back to that point where he is the leader of the team – on the floor he gets everybody in place, dishes the basketball; he doesn’t take those really bad shots because he’s got trust in the other guys now that the season has progressed and they’ve proven themselves that they can get out there and play. That trust factor is there.”
Enter the 6-foot-4 Fruean, arguably the freshman of the year in the state.
Unlike Hepa and Adams who came to high school as proven freshmen from Day 1, Fruean’s developed has been more gradual. The first month of the season he didn’t start and there were some nights when he barely got off the bench.
In some ways, Hepa and Adams made it tough for future freshmen because they were so good, so fast. People might expect all rookies to be remarkable right away; however, that’s not usually the case.
“It’s getting more common, but normally you’re not going to have a freshman that can compete a really high level,” Arnhart said.
The Barrow coach doesn’t believe in entitlements or play favorites when it comes to playing time. Hard work and the right attitude will earn a player extended minutes regardless of their grade.
“I don’t care if you’re a senior and you’ve been there four years, if there is a freshman that goes out and performs and does things right, they are going to get to play,” he said. “There is no guarantee who is going to start today, two weeks, three weeks. It’s who performs in games, practice, puts in the work. Ultimately it gives us the best chance to win ball games. That’s what we are there for.”
Behind the scenes, Fruean started to catch the attention of the coaches and as the season progressed he started to catch up with the older players.
He made his first start against 4A East at the Dimond Prep Shootout and delivered a 19-point, 7-rebound effort in a 72-68 loss.
The kid had arrived.
Since then, Fruean has averaged 18 points and 6 rebounds to help solidify Barrow’s place among the 3A elite.
“You could tell the talent was there, but I didn’t think he would progress this fast,” Arnhart said. “He’s come a long way in a short amount of time. He’s a good player.”
Van Williams is a freelance writer in Anchorage and a correspondent for the Alaska School Activities Association.