The Live Oak High boys basketball team never came close to having a winning record at any point of the season last year, losing its first two games en route to a 6-18 record. What a difference a year makes. With the continued growth of several returning players along with a new coach in Randy Bartholomew, the Acorns have legitimate reason to believe they’re the favorites to win the Blossom Valley League’s West Valley Division and perhaps win a game or two in the Central Coast Section playoffs.
J.T. Carvalho, a standout returning junior forward, said the biggest difference with this year’s team compared to last season has to do with defense. In short, the Acorns are hanging their proverbial hats on defense this season.
“The difference-maker is us having pride on defense,” said Carvalho, who in a 63-56 win over Monte Vista Christian on Dec. 3 shot 4-for-5 from the field, 4-for-4 from the free throw line and 2-for-4 from 3-point range. “Our mentality now is knowing how to play defense, how to pressure teams and how we can get the ball. It’s been a complete switch from last year.”
At 6-foot-3, Carvalho definitely has a prototypical basketball frame. Lean and with a long wingspan, Carvalho also plays the part. Bartholomew said there is a smoothness to Carvalho’s game that lends itself to strong all-around play.
“J.T. is probably our most skilled player as far as overall talent on the team,” said Bartholomew, who has coached previously at Branham, Valley Christian and De Anza College. “He is 6-3, can shoot the 3, take it off the dribble, can pull up for a mid-range jumper, and he has a lot of potential. I can see him playing in college.”
Carvalho headlines a talented roster that includes Jason Valentine, Justin Chu, Drew Becks, Connor Ghione, Thomas Edwards, and Gus Giba. Edwards, a 6-foot junior guard, scored 12 points on a perfect 4-for-4 from 3-point range in the team’s season-opening win against Yerba Buena on Nov. 26. In that same game, Ghione had a game-high 24 points and 11 rebounds. Both players are high energy guys who impact the game in several ways.
Edwards is so energetic that Bartholomew said “he’s a little too exuberant at times.” But the first-year Live Oak coach will gladly take Edwards’ exuberance and everything that comes along with it. Edwards is also lethal from beyond the arc and can stretch defenses with his marksmanship from long range.
“You can’t beat his energy on defense,” Bartholomew said. “He pressures the ball and he has his hands all over the place.”
Ghione, a 6-2 junior wing, possesses a nice touch around the basket and the ability to hit running floaters. He has the potential to get hot from the outside, with Bartholomew saying, “he is really close to being one of our knockdown guys.” Ghione also plays solid defense and has the potential to average a double-double for the season, which is a rarity in the high school game due to contests being just 32 minutes long.
Live Oak has its post for the next couple of years in Giba, a 6-4 sophomore who blends skill with nice touch around the rim and a mid-range game. Giba continues to grow both physically and in his game, and utilizes strong footwork befitting of a quick and agile guard. Speaking of guards, the Acorns have two terrific point guards in seniors Chu and Valentine. They’re two of only three seniors on the roster, meaning the Acorns might not peak until next season.
Valentine can play both guard positions, makes smart decisions with the basketball and possesses strong leadership qualities. Chu understands his role on the team and never tries to go beyond his ability to make something happen. Instead, Chu plays hard, smart and sets up his teammates to score. He also knows how to keep quicker guys in front of him. In the Monte Vista Christian game, Bartholomew put Chu on the Mustangs’ point guard, who just so happens to be one of their top players.
“Justin held him to the perimeter and kind of held him in check most of the night,” Bartholomew said. “He is a pure point guard in that he’s always looking to set guys up to score.”
Becks, a 6-3 junior backup center, does all the dirty work in the paint and provides a physical presence. He also plays with a lot of energy, defends well and can hit the jumper from the elbow area. Most of the time, however, Becks scores points with a lot of putbacks through sheer effort.
“He’ll get a lot of cleanup buckets and is our nose-to-the grindstone kid who will do the dirty work underneath the basket,” Bartholomew said.
Live Oak hasn’t won a league championship since the 1987-1988 season – or well before any of the players were born – and this year’s team would love nothing more than to put another banner up in the gym. The players didn’t need any extra motivation, but like all competitors they’ll use anything for fuel. In the off-season, the Acorns were dropped from the Santa Teresa to the West Valley, the lowest of the three divisions in the Blossom Valley League. This despite the fact Live Oak had all but one of its impact players returning from a squad that finished 4-10 in Santa Teresa play, with several of the games being competitive in nature.
It didn’t really make sense for the Acorns to be moved down, but it happened anyway and now they look to be the odds-on favorite to win the West Valley. Live Oak works the ball around, plays tough on defense and has totally bought into Bartholomew’s coaching style.
“I feel like what’s different with Randy is he knows how to win games basically,” Carvalho said. “He knows how to succeed, we take what he tells us and it’s working so far. It’s great to see more players who didn’t’ seem as bought in last year, but are now bought in as seniors. We mainly have eight guys who go out on the floor, and we have the same mindset, which is to win games. I feel like the players are executing well.”
Carvalho admits he didn’t pride himself on defense last year, but this year is a different story for the entire team. Players are focusing on defense like never before, and it’s paid off immediately. Extra effort and communication have been key in the Acorns’ defensive resurgence.
“Our defensive game has gotten a lot stronger,” Carvalho said. “I know for me personally, I’ve grown a lot in that area over the last year. My mindset has changed from needing to be the main scorer to needing to be that main point guy on defense, just like everyone else has to be a main point guy on defense. We’re not worried about shots not falling, but we’re focusing on things like did you actually lock up on defense. Or were you there for the help defense? Were you there for your teammates when they needed you in the paint? We’re more focused on defense because that is something we can control, rather than if your shots are going to fall.”
Carvalho credits his game to his two older brothers, Josh, 23, and Austin, 25. He grew up watching their games, resulting in him taking up the sport at age 5.
“I saw them play and instantly knew that is what I wanted to do,” he said. “I started to love the game from that moment.”
The big age gap meant J.T. was at a severe disadvantage in terms of competing with his brothers at an early age. Both Josh and Austin played at Live Oak, but J.T. is quick to point out that he will likely end up with the superior career, if it hasn’t happened already.
“I was a freshman on the varsity and they both didn’t make varsity until their junior year,” J.T. said. “My career is looking a lot brighter than their careers.”
J.T. was only getting started. That’s because he had to take ribbing from his brothers for the longest time, and now he’s the one able to deliver the zingers. For the longest time, his brothers razzed him about not being able to dunk, even though they have never been able to dunk the basketball.
“They would bust me all the time even though they could not dunk, and it motivated me to do it, which I did recently,” J.T. said. “They would bust me for everything. Basically, everything in my basketball game that is strong now at one point was weak, which they busted me on.”
Josh and Austin never took it easy on J.T, who is glad his brothers showed him tough love.
“I got bullied a lot, but they helped me grow as a player because I had that motivation to work harder to not only be better than other kids, but to be better than my brothers one day,” J.T. said. “I don’t see my drive or motivation ever dying. … Josh really put the most time into me, in terms of going to the gym and training me. He’s been training me since I was in the seventh grade, and he’s had the biggest impact on my basketball game by far. My brothers helped me develop a mental toughness to my game that has helped me become the player I am today.”