Undefeated Ben Davis chasing history. All that stands in its way is Flory Bidunga and Kokomo

Ten years before Flory Bidunga arrived in Kokomo from Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, soon to become one of the state’s biggest high school basketball sensations in recent years, Don Carlisle was starting his coaching career more than 4,000 miles from home.

You could barely call it a coaching career at that point. Carlisle, the former Ben Davis and IUPUI standout, was winding down his 11-year professional basketball career in Paris and was looking for something to fill his days. He found a job teaching conversational English at the International School of Paris, where he was also tabbed to coach the middle school girls basketball team and high school boys.

“I probably liked coaching the middle school girls more because they listened and wanted to learn,” said Carlisle, who will coach Class 4A top-ranked and 32-0 Ben Davis on Saturday night in the Class 4A state championship against the 6-10 junior Bidunga and Kokomo.

That experience was an important starting point for the 43-year-old Carlisle. He never intended on getting into teaching or coaching until that year in Paris. The realization set in soon after he started that he was not in Indiana anymore.

“We had one (high school) kid who could make a left-handed layup,” Carlisle said. “I realized we had to do some things different. Things we learned in third or fourth grade in Indiana, they hadn’t been taught. We didn’t wake up understanding how to do those things. Somebody took the time to teach us. But that made me a better coach.”

That team, Carlisle jokes, would probably lose to this Ben Davis team “by about 150 points.” That was his last year playing professional basketball. He returned to IUPUI to work on Todd Howard’s staff for two seasons before starting his high school coaching career at Arlington for three seasons, then was hired at his alma mater in 2018.

His first team, led by Jalen Windham and Dawand Jones, reached the state finals. But it did not fully feel like his team. Not like this one does. Zane Doughty. Sheridan Sharp. Clay Butler. Shaun Arnold. K.J. Windham. Those guys came up through the system with him, taking their lumps as freshmen and sophomores.

“This group has really only heard my voice and my assistants’ (voices),” Carlisle said. “This is my group.”

Together, they have a chance to make history as Indiana's 14th undefeated boys basketball state champion. Standing in their way is the Kokomo and the 6-10 Bidunga, the player Carlisle calls “one of the better players in the country,” comparing him to former Lawrence North and Ohio State star Greg Oden.

Bidunga’s rise, from complete unknown to a top-five national prospect, is almost unheard of.

How Kokomo's fortunes changed

There was little to suggest this fervor over Kokomo basketball was coming at the end of the 2020-21 season. The Wildkats finished 7-17, a third consecutive losing season for Bobby Wonnell, a good coach who won at Tindley and Taylor. But for whatever reason, the Kokomo program sputtered during Wonnell’s tenure.

“We didn’t have any success in the tournament at all,” senior Shayne Spear said. “We barely had people at the games. It was to the point where some of the players didn’t want to play anymore.”

Even after John Peckinpaugh left Noblesville to coach at Kokomo, where his wife Haley is the girls coach, there was little to suggest a dramatic turnaround was on the horizon. But Bidunga arrived from the Congo on Aug. 3, 2021, and started classes in the Kokomo International Program the following day.

“I heard he was 6-10 and thought, ‘This season could change really fast,’" Spear. "He was raw talent, basically.”

Senior guard Zavion Bellamy added: “You saw right away he could make an impact on defense.”

Bidunga, admittedly, had hardly played any organized basketball. He could also barely speak English or understand what he was being asked to do. He jokes now that he should have paid more attention to his English class when he was in the Congo.

“We had some English classes back home,” Bidunga said. “I said, ‘Why should I speak English?’ I joke when I grow up a little bit I will tell my teachers if I would have known, I would have listened more in classes.”

Bidunga was an impact player on the defensive end from the first game. In a 60-58 overtime home win over Western, he had 11 points, 14 rebounds and two blocked shots. He did not always know what he was doing, but he tried to do what Peckinpaugh told him.

“It was a little bit weird,” Bidunga said. “I was trying to figure it out and pick it up. The least I can do is listen. If I’m doing something wrong, coach will tell me and I will correct it.”

Because Bidunga had such limited basketball experience, he did not have any ingrained bad habits. And he was open to coaching, even hard coaching.

“The good thing about Flory and I think the thing that sets him apart from other kids who might be in the top 10 or top five in the country is he wants to continue to get better," Peckinpaugh said. "He doesn’t think he’s hit his ceiling yet. He wants to be coached hard and wants to be told when he’s doing something wrong. Sometimes I do that with a lot of intensity. It might come off the wrong way and he might be mad at me sometimes, but he wants to be pushed.”

Last year, no one expected Bidunga and Kokomo to make a tournament run. The Wildkats were 15-7 at the end of the regular season before knocking off Harrison and Lafayette Jeff to win the sectional. Kokomo rallied in the regional semifinal at Logansport for a 45-40 win over Fort Wayne Snider, then stunned Westfield and Mr. Basketball Braden Smith that night 64-60 for the regional title.

By that point, Bidunga, who had 21 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots against Westfield, was becoming a statewide curiosity.

“We weren’t supposed to be there last year,” Spear said. “But then we got there (to the semistate) and should have won.”

Kokomo was stopped by a tough-minded and undefeated Chesterton team, 42-40, in the semistate. But it was an enormously-successful season for the Wildkats and Bidunga, who had come to the season hoping to “get three or four blocked shots a game and help my teammates.”

His season line: 17.5 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.3 blocked shots per game.

“He got very, very good,” Spear said. “He was already good defensively. Offensively, he’s improved so much. He’s definitely top-five in the country.”

Playing against top competition on the travel basketball national scene, Bidunga’s stock skyrocketed. Scholarship offers rolled in from Wake Forest, Creighton, Auburn, Arizona State, Butler, Kansas, Florida, Louisville, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Georgetown, Indiana and Purdue.

“It’s exciting that they show interest in you,” Bidunga said.

This season harkened back to the glory years at Kokomo. Fans filled the gym expecting a show. And they got it. Spear was coming off an injury at the start of the season and missed the first three games, including losses to Westfield (47-39) and Ben Davis (58-51). There were also losses to Zionsville (48-41) and Brownsburg (73-51), the latter coming at home in the championship game of the Phil Cox Memorial Tournament.

But since then? Seventeen straight wins. Bidunga, averaging 20.3 points, 13.9 rebounds and 4.5 blocked shots, is shooting 81% from the field, but a number that probably shows his work ethic has much as anything is his improvement from a 48% free-throw shooter as a sophomore to 59% as a junior.

“He just works very hard,” Spear said.

That work ethic helped make Bidunga a fan favorite. He runs the floor, blocks shots, dunks and then signs autographs and takes pictures with fans after games. Yes, this is fun for Flory.

“I love the people and they love me too,” he said. “That’s what I need.”

Peckinpaugh acknowledges there have been moments when he has had to talk to players about Bidunga’s attention as he rose to be ranked No. 2 in the country by recruiting services. But that attention comes more from the outside than the inside. And Bidunga is such a likeable individual that it helps to diffuse any issues.

“We’ve hit our stride in the second half of the season,” Peckinpaugh said. “Without guys like Shayne Spear, Zavion Bellamy, Patrick Hardimon, Reis Beard, we’re not in the position we’re in now. Each of those guys brought something to the table we needed.”

The attention might be on Flory. But it’s not a one-man team. The team Kokomo will see Saturday night might be the ultimate all-for-one, one-for-all team.

Ben Davis' quick progress

It might seem hard to believe now, but Ben Davis was not exactly a juggernaut team with visions of making history two years ago. After a 26-point loss to Fishers in the season opener, Carlisle had a long postgame discussion with the team that he had no plans for going through another season like the 9-14 year that followed the state finals run in 2019.

After a 2-6 start, the Giants improved to 14-12 by the end of the season and won a sectional title with a young group. Those skinny sophomores eventually became seniors.

“I’ll never forget Lawrence North had D.J. Hughes and we were getting beat like a drum,” Carlisle said. “This was Zane’s freshman year. He turned around and elbowed him and dunked on him. I said, ‘Zane, there will be a time when you are a senior and you’ll be doing that.' You start thinking about how far he’s come from when those guys were doing that to him.”

The 6-9 Doughty became the Marion County Player of the Year as a senior, an honor that meant the world to him. Doughty comes into Saturday’s game averaging a team-high 13.6 points and 9.3 rebounds. Assistant coach Courtney James works closely with Doughty, often pulling him aside in huddles or vice versa.

“We’ve been able to challenge him over the years,” Carlisle said. “Zane didn’t have much confidence before this year. I think that’s why he’s so humbled and appreciative when he gets accolades and awards. He’s never been the type of player to get them really so he soaks up that stuff. He wants to be good. He’s a fun kid to coach.”

Ben Davis’ roster is filled with players like Doughty, a Valparaiso recruit who was probably overlooked early in his career. Sharp, a senior guard headed to Nicholls State, is a confident, million-dollar-smile point guard who always seems in control. Butler is the team’s best 3-point shooter, quick with his release. The 6-5 Arnold is a relentless defender in the fullcourt and halfcourt. The lefty Windham can fill it up from 3. Zackery can arguably match Arnold as a defender and has come up big in the biggest gams. Mark White, a junior, is reliable off the bench along with 6-6 senior Jesse Faires.

“I’d put my first group up against any team in the state,” Carlisle said. “But that second group, that’s where we can have real separation from other teams. We can go small, we can go big and we don’t lose much. I think a balanced team is better than a team with one guy averaging 30. It makes us tough to prepare for.”

One team chasing history. A mountain of a challenge stands in its way. Good luck getting a ticket.

Class 4A state finals details: Tipoff at 8:15 p.m. Saturday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse; game will be broadcast on Bally Sports Indiana Extra and live streamed on IHSAAtv.org. Tickets are $15 per person for one session and can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com. Participating schools also have tickets available at the respective schools.

How Kokomo can win: The Wildkats turned the ball over 16 times in a 58-51 loss to the Giants in December and got dominated on the offensive boards. That can't happen again. Value possessions, don't let the turnovers that do happen turn into layups and dunks. Make 3-pointers at a 40% clip.

How Ben Davis can win: Pressure the guards. This is an automatic for any Ben Davis opponent, but particularly in this one. Find Bidunga and keep him off the glass as much as possible. The Giants need to get off to a good start and not rely on the third quarter, though that has proven to be a reliable script. If Butler and Windham are hitting 3s, the Giants are tough to beat.

Prediction: Ben Davis 60, Kokomo 57. I think this will be a defensive battle. This score may be too high, but it's going to be a great game and awesome atmosphere.

Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IHSAA basketball: Ben Davis chases history vs. Flory Bidunga, Kokomo