By Mike Marsee
The (Danville) Advocate-Messenger
If the 12th Region is so wide-open, why is almost everyone picking the same team to win'
Coaches around the region were practically lining up to pick Lincoln County, saying the Patriots have a little more of what it takes to make it to Rupp Arena than the rest of the field.
But while Lincoln is an overwhelming favorite among those trying to handicap the regional race, they're expecting another crowded stretch run on the way to the finish line March 13.
For the second year in a row, the season opens with at least two teams in every district that can be considered potential regional champions. And while that list might be pared a bit by the postseason, the title once again appears to be up for grabs.
Still, Lincoln is the one at No. 1 on most lists.
'Lincoln County's the team to beat because of who they've got back,' Boyle County coach Ronnie Bottoms said. 'They've got the coaching, they've got the athleticism, and those kids have played together for a while.'
But Lincoln coach Jeff Jackson insists his isn't the only team to beat.
'I think we're right there, but there's five or six teams that are right there,' Jackson said.
One way or the other, the road to the regional title runs through Lincoln, because the Patriots will host the regional tournament.
Here's a team-by-team look at the 12th:
1. LINCOLN COUNTY (16-13)
Lincoln and its loyal fans haven't celebrated a regional championship since 1980, but this team has been constructed with the idea of ending that drought.
Virtually all of its key players have been on the floor together for the last two or three seasons, and they have become a balanced team with a number of weapons but no single star.
The Patriots are deep, they're balanced and they're usually not led in scoring by the same person in consecutive games.
'I think it's going to be the same way; at least I hope it is,' Jackson said. 'We feel like on any given night, any of six kids can lead us in scoring.'
No Lincoln player averaged in double figures last season, but four of them -- senior forwards Braxton Miller and Chase Overstreet, senior guard Ryan Young and junior guard Trent Calhoun -- averaged eight or nine points per game.
There are four returning starters: Miller, Overstreet, Young and junior guard Daniel Ralston. There were also four others who were in the playing rotation last season: Calhoun, senior guards Noah Keeton and Kelly Reed and junior guard Levi Rogers.
All of them are capable of a big scoring night, and they'll all probably have one or more over the course of the season.
Lincoln gave up just over 56 points per game last year, not an alarming number but one that Jackson would like to see reduced. He said the Patriots still need to improve on defense, and he said they have to be better on the boards as well.
This is Jackson's third year at Lincoln after leaving University Heights, and he has brought these players along steadily during that time. Now he's challenging them with a tough schedule that includes trips to the Hoopin' It Up Holiday Classic in London and the Fifth Third Bank Classic in Lexington, games against a handful of teams that are usually in the running for regional titles (Perry County Central, Mason County, Madison Central, Paul Dunbar) and battles with every 12th Region team in the top half of this list.
2. SOUTHWESTERN (22-9)
Southwestern surely isn't interested in being second on anybody's list after losing to Boyle in last year's regional final. And the Warriors have many of their key players back as they try to make another March run.
Seniors will lead the way, starting with point guard Casey Dalton, who returns to run Dave Schultz's thrill-a-minute offense.
Also returning to the lineup are forward Jonathan Edwards, one of the team's tallest players and the top returning 3-point shooter, and forward T.W. Sears. Senior guard Kyle Rodgers will also play a larger role.
The challenge will be replacing Dustin Fothergill, who was one of the region's top players last year, and it's a good bet that Southwestern will rely on several players to pick up the slack.
No matter what, the Warriors figure to keep playing at the same breakneck pace that has become their trademark in recent years, pushing the ball up the floor and firing 3-point shots at will.
They averaged 70 points per game, about seven more than the second-highest team in the region, and they'll put up some big numbers again this fall.
3. EAST JESSAMINE (20-10)
As expected, the move to the 12th Region was good for Jessamine County basketball, and it probably will be for years to come.
The Jaguars fared best of the two Jessamine schools, winning 20 games and reaching the regional semifinals, and they return four starters from that team.
Senior Ryan Hager and junior Mike Hanley, the team's top 3-point shooter last year, return to the East Jessamine backcourt, and senior Justin Sanders and junior Matt Whitley are on the front line.
Senior forward Ryan Hamann, one of the first men off the bench last year, also returns along with senior forward Tommy Beach.
Sanders figures to lead the offense, but the scoring should be more evenly distributed this season. Yet no matter where the offense comes from, East Jessamine will again be a force in the 46th District and should rise among the ranks of the region's best teams.
4. McCREARY CENTRAL (17-11)
The Raiders had been starved for a little success for years, and their accomplishments last season may have only served to make them hungry for more.
McCreary won 13 more games last year than in the season before with the same core of players. Those players are together again, this time in a new role as a team that's expected to win, and maybe even make a run at the school's first regional title since 1983.
McCreary returns all five starters, including freshman Aaron Watts, who had an impressive season as an eighth-grader, and senior Josh Bartley, a strong leader and shooter at point guard. Watts averaged about 18 points last year, and Bartley was only a point or so behind.
Watts has grown from 6-0 to 6-2, and there probably will be some growing pains of a different sort as he draws more and more attention from defenses.
Bartley sat out this summer with a knee injury, and while that put him behind a bit, it allowed junior Adam Swiger to grow while serving as the point guard in Bartley's absence.
Junior Josh Phillips and senior Corey Waters are the other returning starters, and senior Devin Gibson and junior Lucas Gregory will also contribute to a team that lacks in size but not in depth.
They also aren't lacking in expectations. Coach Robert Jones said the buzz in McCreary is noticeable.
'Expectations are high, and there's a lot of talk about what could happen at the end of the year,' Jones said. 'It's totally different when you're not the underdog.'
5. BOYLE COUNTY (21-10)
The Rebels don't look at all like the team that represented the 12th Region in the state tournament last season, but they think they can make a run at a successful title defense with a very different group of players.
Boyle will be faster, deeper and more versatile this season, despite the loss of four starters and a total of six seniors. Last year's team centered around center Brian Staed, the region's best player in his senior year, but this year the Rebels will have more options both on offense and defense.
'Our style's obviously going to be a lot different. We're going to be more of an open-court team,' Bottoms said. 'I don't have a 6-9 guy, but I'm longer in every position, and we go two deep and in some places three deep.'
And Bottoms said the returning players who had only bit parts last year got a good lesson in what it takes to succeed.
'All our young kids got to watch and see great leadership from our players and what it takes day in and day out,' he said. 'We want to be a regional contender every year, and that's what we want to be this year.'
The lone returning starter is senior guard Grant Tamme, whom Bottoms said comes back after a strong summer. Bottoms was also thrilled with the progress of sophomore forward-center Jordan Aumiller, whom he said plays bigger than his size (6-4) but can also shoot well from the perimeter.
Senior forward Andre Alcorn has rebounded well from offseason rotator cuff surgery, and senior guard Nate Collins has also improved and appears ready to take the reins of the offense.
Boyle is even stronger with the addition of two transfers from Danville, senior forward Spencer Perrin and junior forward Christian Williams.
Bottoms said the Rebels would be strong even without the two additions, but he said their arrival makes them even more dangerous. He said Perrin might well be the best player in the region, and Williams will get a chance to become a powerful offensive weapon as well.
Juniors Bryce Perry and Travis Howell and sophomores Jordan Walker and Bret Marshall are among those also expected to contribute.
6. SOMERSET (20-7)
The Briar Jumpers are getting in deeper every year, and coach Shawn Thacker said that's a good thing.
He calls this the deepest team he has had at Somerset, and he said that should help the Jumpers overcome heavy losses to graduation.
'It'll be the deepest and the most quality bench that we've had, and I keep saying that every year because it keeps getting better,' Thacker said. 'I like the potential of this basketball team. There's some teams ahead of where we are right now, but I like the chances of our team being in the hunt at the end.'
Leading a strong group of upperclassmen are junior forward Corey Price, who is expected to become the primary scorer, and junior point guard John Cole, who was thrown into that position last year when his older brother was injured.
'I think we'll get better as he gets better,' Thacker said of Cole. 'He's the quickest kid I've had. We're trying to get him to play basketball at the pace he plays (football).'
Tyler Bourne, a 6-5 junior, will take over in the post for a team that could dress up to 15 juniors and seniors.
'We've got a lot of kids that have the potential to contribute,' Thacker said.
7. WEST JESSAMINE (17-14)
There are questions to be answered at West Jessamine, where a new coach takes over and inherits only one returning starter. But the coach, Robert Hammonds, who was at Bracken County for the last three years, likes his situation just fine.
In fact, he said he doesn't even mind that his predecessor, Bart Flener, is sitting right down the hall in the principal's office. He said he hopes to build on the work Flener did in his two years as the Colts' coach.
'My job is just to maintain that and hopefully a little bit more,' Hammonds said. 'Coach Flener is one of the reasons I applied for the job.'
Senior forward Zack Fain is the only returning starter for a team that graduated five seniors, but he is part of a large group of seniors that also includes forward Glendon Blanton, a part-time starter last year, and guard Kudo Kagoro.
Three juniors, point guard Michael Lee; guard Alan Turner, a defensive specialist; and guard Gulian Blanton, Glendon's younger brother, also figure heavily in Hammonds' plans.
8. PULASKI COUNTY (10-16)
Much of the Maroons' success will be predicated on the scoring of senior forward John Perkins, who averaged about 25 points per game last year to rank among the top 10 scorers in the state.
But coach Mark Flynn said Pulaski will need more than points from Perkins if they are to succeed this season.
'We expect John to be our leader this year, and we want to showcase his other positive attributes like his passing and his defense,' Flynn said.
Most of Pulaski's other starting spots are up for grabs, and many of those in the running have relatively little experience. Sophomore Shawn Whitis has the inside track on a forward spot, senior Joshua Dawes, junior Isaac Hart and sophomore Corey Dixon will compete for post minutes, and the guard positions were in question when the preseason began.
Flynn, a 1990 Pulaski graduate who begins his first full season as coach after finishing last season as the interim coach, said he looks forward to rebuilding the program with an emphasis on defense, fundamentals and 'doing the little things.'
9. MERCER COUNTY (11-15)
Now that teams have a month's worth of practice behind them, there might be no bigger mystery in the region than the Titans, who have the combined talent pools of Mercer and Harrodsburg at their disposal.
The two schools merged this summer, and that led to tremendous success for Mercer's football team. But what the good news on the gridiron might hold back the basketball team for a few weeks, because a number of players expected to impact the basketball team are still playing football.
As a result, first-year coach Nelson Cundiff said he doesn't know yet what his team can become ' and may not know for some time. 'There's not a lot I can say about them right now,' said Cundiff, who spent the last two years as Nelson County's girls coach. 'I hope people understand our situation.'
The merger does give Mercer a wealth of experienced players, and that will help the Titans play the fast-paced style Cundiff prefers. And he hopes the success of the school's football team will help his team believe it can win after both Mercer and Harrodsburg had losing seasons last year.
'We have to get the kids to buy into the system and create a winning attitude,' Cundiff said. 'We can have both a basketball school and a football school. They're going to set the bar high, and we expect to meet that.'
Mercer's seniors include forwards Chase Wofford, the top returning scorer and one of the state's top rebounders at 13 boards per game last year, and Dillon Kidd, a powerful forward who has missed time in the preseason due to mononucleosis, and guards Chrys Jones, Cory Jackson and Logan Hazelwood. Ethan Ashford and Nate Robertson lead the juniors. A loaded sophomore class includes Ward Dedman, Tyler Mays, Nick Patterson, Trevor Short and Jordan Yeast.
10. DANVILLE (14-11)
With the exception of Mercer's merged team, there may be no team in the region that looks more different than the Admirals, who must replace four or five starters with a lineup that will have very little experience.
Danville's leading returnees include sophomore guard Kruz Warner, a part-time starter last season, and sophomore forward Leonard Macon, whose skills impressed Kentucky football coaches that they offered him a scholarship earlier this year.
If there is a returning starter, it will be senior guard Daylen Morris, but it isn't yet known whether Morris will return to basketball after football season.
Senior guard Jamal Grey should move into the starting lineup, and junior guard Dominique Alcorn also has varsity experienced.
'We probably have eight guys who could find themselves in the rotation, and I don't think there'll be a real drop-off,' coach Craig Pippen said.
Other players expected to contribute are senior guard Jamie Grey, sophomores Miles Kingsley and Jonathan Milburn, a Lincoln County transfer, and senior Matt Del Cotto, who returns after a year off. It's clearly a rebuilding year, but Pippen said he likes the material he has to work with. He said he's putting an emphasis on character and making sure the Admirals are strong both on and off the court.
'We'll have kids who are character-oriented, who want to work hard, who want to do well,' he said. 'What I really like about this group is there's no individuals. They'll accept any role we give them, and that's a new attitude on this team.'
11. CASEY COUNTY (8-18)
Keith Price might be the best big man in the region this winter, and he'll be a big part of any success the Rebels have. But they'll need more than just a big year from Price to reach the goals coach Perry Walters has.
'If we do what we're supposed to, we can win this district,' Walters said.
The 6-7 Price will be the focal point for opposing defenses, but Walters said he's better prepared to deal with that.
'He's running the floor really well, his vertical is a little better and he's gotten stronger,' Walters said. 'What I'm seeing is a lot of double- and triple-teams. If Keith can handle that, great. If not, people have to step up.'
Senior guard Will Johnson will probably be the second option on offense, as he can shoot from the perimeter but also has enough size to operate inside.
At 6-2, sophomore Kellen Sanders also brings size to the point guard position. Junior Nick Coffman will play at power forward, and the small forward could be junior Chad Jeffries.
Senior Derek Falconberry could challenge for a forward spot, and 6-4 sophomore Elliott Cannon should also play on the front line. 'Everybody on my team could help a little bit,' Walters said. 'I would like to go at least 11 or 12 deep if I had to.'
12. GARRARD COUNTY (5-19)
The outlook is optimistic at Garrard, where the Golden Lions return four starters and coach Scott Bolin believes they can drastically improve on last season.
'Obviously, it's early in the year and we're not where we want them to be, but we're happy with where we're at and where the program's headed,' coach Scott Bolin said. 'The kids feel like they have a lot to prove.'
The Lions will be led by senior forward Kent Johnson, a three-year starter who was last year's leading scorer. Senior center Cody Ives should have a bigger impact because he'll be at full strength after playing with a dislocated shoulder for most of last season.
Junior guard Nate Ploskonka and sophomore guard Justin Ray also return to the lineup, both having grown a few inches to 5-11 and 6-2, respectively.
Senior forward Jared Prewitt returns after a year off, junior forward Jordan Phillips comes to Garrard from East Jessamine, and they join senior guard Pat Kluesener, sophomore forward Evan Preston, who grew to 6-3, and junior center Nigel Durham.
13. WAYNE COUNTY (3-24)
The Cardinals have been going nowhere but downhill for the last two years, and they may have hit bottom last season with a three-win season that ended with a 13-game losing streak.
But no one believed that Rodney Woods' team would stay down for long, and Wayne looks to be on the rise this season with a lineup of five returning starters: seniors Robert Corder and Wesley Dick, juniors Jacob Gregory and Cody Decker and sophomore Ronnie Ellis.
14. ROCKCASTLE COUNTY (12-18)
The Rockets are one of the region's biggest unknowns, as they lost five senior starters and didn't go that deep into their bench last year.
Two juniors, 6-3 Coty Childress and 6-4 Lynn Miracle, will lead Rockcastle from the frontcourt.
15. BURGIN (6-19)
The Bulldogs remain young but aren't as inexperienced, as they used several freshman last year.
Last year's leading scorer, senior forward Daniel Loane, returns, along with guard Patrick Cannada and forward Daniel Dunford, two sophomores who started for much of last season.
Look for first-year player Levi Begley, a senior guard, to be the primary point man, and sophomores Ian Powell, Zack Irvine and Billy Beckerson and senior Logan Arrasmith will also contribute.
16. MONTICELLO (8-18)
The Trojans notched their first win over rival Wayne in several years and were within 12 points or less in every other district game, but they'll face still face tough sledding as the other teams in their district have all improved.
17. KENTUCKY SCHOOL for the DEAF (2-20)
The Colonels have more experience than they've had in several years, with five returning starters, and more players on the roster (14) than they've had in a while as well.
The only senior is forward Drew Meade, who has starred on KSD's front line for four years. Also back in the lineup are sophomore guards Dustin Tipton and Jeremy Latimer, sophomore forward Travis Zornoza and junior guard Bobby Reeves.
John Perkins, Pulaski Cou
nty, 6-3 Sr. F
Perkins has proved he can score, but the Maroons will need him to do more this season.
Spencer Perrin, Boyle County
, 6-4 Sr. F
His combination of strength, speed and skill could make Boyle a threat to repeat.
Aaron Watts, McCreary Central
, 6-2 Fr. G
Watts just started high school, but he's already the big man on campus at McCreary.
Keith Price, Casey County
, 6-7 Sr. C
He should be even more of a force in the paint for Casey as he continues to grow stronger.
Casey Dalton, Southwestern
, 6-0 Sr. G
Someone has to run Southwestern's high-speed offense, and Dalton has already proved he's the man for the job.
Braxton Miller, Lincoln County
, 5-11 Sr. G
Lincoln is a balanced team by design, but Miller's speed and strength would make him a standout on many teams.
Josh Bartley, McCreary Central
, 6-0 Sr. G
If Bartley comes back strong after a knee injury, he'll be a key figure in the Raiders' rise.
Justin Sanders, East Jessamine
, 6-2 Sr. F
Sanders figures to be an even bigger part of the Jaguars' offense this season.
Chase Wofford, Mercer County
, 6-3 Sr. F
Wofford can score, but he does his best work on the boards.
John Cole, Somerset
, 5-11 Jr. G
Cole was forced into the point guard position a year earlier than planned, but he'll be better for the experience this season.