By Mike Marsee
The (Danville) Advocate-Messenger
Time for a brain-teaser: Why can’t the reigning state champion defend its regional title?
The answer, of course, is because it isn’t in the region any more. Realignment has taken state titlist South Laurel out of the 12th Region, leaving the 12th as one of two regions without a defending champion this season. (The other is the 8th, which Bullitt East vacated.)
Now for the real trick question: With the 12th Region title up for grabs, which team is the favorite to take it?
There’s no real answer to that question, because there is no clear favorite in the new-look 12th. At least six teams have been mentioned as possible champions, including three that didn’t reach the tournament last season, and two or three others are considered potential sleepers.
It would be easy to call this region if South Laurel were still here, but the Cardinals can only win the 13th Region, and no coach who thinks his team has a shot is missing them.
“This is a year where you’re glad South Laurel isn’t in the region, because they’re still head and shoulders above everybody in the 12th,” Boyle County coach Ronnie bottoms said. “It opens it up for a lot of teams to have an opportunity.”
Someone has to be listed No. 1, and that will be Somerset, an improving team with an effective combination of size, shooting, defense, experience and depth.
But the first six teams on this list could be listed in virtually any order. Boyle County and Danville have talented teams capable of contending for the title, Southwestern could ride its high-speed style and 3-point shooting prowess to Rupp Arena, or newcomers East Jessamine and West Jessamine could make their mark right away.
Realignment took three teams out of the 12th Region and replaced them with three new ones. The two Jessamine County schools and Rockcastle County join the region, replacing North Laurel, South Laurel and Russell County.
And the comings and goings affected each of the region’s four districts. Perhaps no district was affected more than the 48th, which for years was regarded as one of the toughest in the state with the two schools from Laurel County and three from Pulaski County. Now Southwestern is the only team from that quintet remaining.
Here’s a team-by-team look at the 12th:
1. SOMERSET (22-7)
The Briar Jumpers will go as far as a strong senior class can carry them, and that could be a long way.
Coach Shawn Thacker was thrilled with the way his team played this summer, when it went 29-8 and won its section of a team camp at Morehead State University.
“I think we’re going to be a lot better than most people would think,” Thacker said.
And Somerset’s seniors are large in more ways than one. Forwards Nathan Holton and Andy Cole give the Jumpers a formidable front line at 6-6 and 6-3, respectively.
Thacker said Holton came a long way last season, and he’s a dangerous perimeter shooter as well as a presence in the paint. And Thacker said Cole should be a stronger, better finisher around the basket and is one of the team’s top leaders.
The Somerset senior class also features 6-4 Ray Norman, whom Thacker said is one of the most athletic players in the region, as well as pair of defensive specialists, 6-0 point guard Eric Wilson and 6-1 forward Chip Clay, who add to the team’s versatility. A.J. Sharpe, a 6-3 forward capable of shooting from the perimeter, returns after two years off.
The Jumpers have another point guard on the rise in sophomore John Cole, and another big man in 6-6 junior Josh Parrett.
“We’ve got the best bench that we’ve ever had,” Thacker said.
2. BOYLE COUNTY (20-11)
Ronnie Bottoms swore he’d only be coaching at Boyle for one year, but that one year was good enough to convince school officials to ask him to stay and to convince him to do it. The Rebels won 20 games in Bottoms’ year as an interim coach, and he took the job on a permanent basis in April.
Boyle is aiming even higher this season, and there’s one big reason why the Rebels can contend for their first regional crown since 1999. One very big reason.
It’s Brian Staed, the 6-9 senior who has made the transition from gangly underclassman to dominant center. Staed made marked improvement last season, and Bottoms said he improved even more in the off-season by working both on his game and on his strength -- he added enough muscle to raise his weight to 228 pounds.
“He’s playing a stronger, more physical game, and he’s more confident in his moves,” Bottoms said. “I think his best basketball is still to come.”
Having Staed in the middle allows Boyle to use 6-4 senior Clay Carter, who would have to play in the post for most teams, away from the basket. Carter is a good shooter who teams with Staed to give the Rebels an excellent high-low combination.
Seth Tamme, a 6-0 senior guard, is also coming off a strong summer. And the Rebels will also rely on two other seniors: 6-0 Scott Singleton, the team’s best shooter, and 6-3 Matthew Horn, whom Bottoms said is its most improved player. Two other seniors, Casey Brummett and Ben Johnson, will also contribute.
If Boyle has an Achilles heel, it is its lack of a proven point guard. Tamme could fill that spot, or it could go to junior Nathan Collins, a transfer from Ohio.
3. SOUTHWESTERN (16-10)
The Warriors are not a one-trick team, but the one thing they do best is so much a part of their game that it will make or break them in March.
Southwestern set -- make that shattered -- the school record for 3-point attempts last season by averaging about 35 long-range shots per game. The Warriors will still shoot about 35 3s per game, but coach David Schultz wants better accuracy out of a team that shot about 30 percent behind the line last year.
“This year our goal is to break the made record, but not the attempts,” Schultz said.
Three-point shooting is critical to a team that doesn’t have the size of most of the other regional title contenders.
“Everybody knows our weakness, and that’s just size. We’ve found ways to compensate for that and use the 3s to our advantage,” Schultz said.
Southwestern has a star in 6-3 senior guard Dustin Fothergill, who averaged 18 points and seven rebounds and who is versatile enough to run the offense, drive to the basket or play defense in the paint.
“There’s really not an aspect of his game where there’s a flaw,” Schultz said. “He’s just basketball-savvy. He has developed into the type of player we anticipated when we saw him as an eighth-grader.”
Casey Dalton, a 6-0 junior whom Schultz calls “relentless,” returns as the Warriors’ primary point guard.
Another junior, 6-3 Jonathan Edwards, is the team’s best 3-point shooter and is trying to develop an all-around game. T.W. Sears, a 6-1 junior, is an athletic defender and can be aggressive in driving to the basket.
Southwestern will also get contributions from 5-10 senior Casey Daugherty, another strong 3-point shooter; 5-10 senior Kirby Mayer, a baseball standout who is the basketball team’s utility player; and 6-0 junior Kyle Rogers, a rapidly improving guard.
4. DANVILLE (22-7)
You can’t count out any team as talented as the Admirals, who won the 45th District last year but are aiming even higher this season.
Speed and athleticism are Danville’s calling cards, and they translate into a team that is aggressive on offense and aggravating on defense.
“I think we’re going to be extremely competitive,” coach Craig Pippen said. “Our philosophy isn’t changing. We’ll probably be quicker than we were last year, and we’ll definitely look to extend the floor on teams.”
Pippen said this is the most athletic team he has coached at Danville, with an effective inside game and good guard play.
It starts with 6-3 senior forward Darius Baughman, who might shoot from the wing or drive the baseline and can use his long arms to create havoc on defense.
The inside game was strengthened with the addition of 6-4 Justin Doolin, another athletic senior who transferred to Danville after leading Harrodsburg in scoring last year. Then there is 6-5 junior Spencer Perrin, a tremendous leaper who continues to improve in the paint. The Admirals can also use Eric Macon, a 6-6 freshman, in the middle.
On the outside, 5-10 junior Daylen Morris will be back at point guard, 5-11 senior Eric Caldwell returns at the other guard spot, and 6-0 junior Jeffery Guest adds to the backcourt depth.
What might hurt the Admirals most is their shooting. Both their field goal and free throw shooting have been a problem in the past, and Pippen said they must improve in both areas.
5. EAST JESSAMINE (14-14)
Like its cross-town rival, East Jessamine couldn’t be happier to flee the 11th Region. The road trips might be longer, but the chances for championships should be greater because the two Jessamine schools won’t have to battle Lexington’s basketball powers.
“If we stay healthy and we have all the pieces, we feel like we can contend this year,” East Jessamine coach Chris O’Bryan said.
The Jaguars have an athletic team, and none of them is more athletic than 6-3 senior center Erich Downey, who has led them in rebounding for the last two seasons and has emerged as a scoring threat in the post.
Justin Sanders, a 6-2 junior, will also be a top scoring threat from a shooting guard position, and sophomore Matt Whitley returns to the post after starting for most of his freshman season. Senior Jonathan Foster returns to a guard spot, and junior Ryan Hager will play a wing position.
O’Bryan said juniors Ryan Hamann and Dylan Daniel and sophomore Mike Hanley will also contribute to a team that could go 10 deep.
East Jessamine needs to dig deeper on defense, an area that O’Bryan said was lacking last season. And the Jaguars will maintain a fast pace that makes the most of their athleticism.
6. WEST JESSAMINE (22-7)
Just like O’Bryan, West Jessamine coach Bart Flener is glad to be taking up residence in the 12th. And Flener said the Colts are also capable of making a run for the regional title.
“There’s probably six or seven teams that can win it, and I’d like to think we’re one of them,” coach Bart Flener said.
Like some of the other contenders, West Jessamine is senior-heavy, even though it lost five seniors last season. The Colts have five more, although only a couple have significant experience.
They include Brian Johnson, a 6-4 senior whom Flener said can play any position. Johnson turned heads this summer by scoring 22 points in the 12th Region junior all-star game, and he’ll hold his own in the post this year while still being able to contribute in the backcourt when necessary.
The other experienced senior is 5-10 shooting guard Steven Brooks, who won the 3-point shooting contest at that junior all-star game. The other seniors are 6-2 Eric Coker, a football quarterback who will play forward; 5-10 Joey Sideranko, who will play point guard; and 6-6 Jason Crist, an athletic post player who can block shots but who weighs only 160 pounds.
However, Flener said developing the next wave of players will be critical, because he likes to use at least 10 players.
7. MERCER COUNTY (11-17)
Keep an eye on the Scotties, who won’t let East Jessamine and West Jessamine have the 46th District titles all to themselves.
Mercer is poised to vigorously defend its district title with a team that returns almost everyone from last season and gives coach Greg Edwards more options than ever.
“Last year we were able to get a little bit of depth. We’ve got some flexibility, and we can go to different lineups if we need to,” Edwards said.
Michael Bottoms, a 6-2 senior who was last year’s top scorer and rebounder, will again be the first option on offense. But he isn’t the only one. Mercer has size and depth, and Edwards said there are plenty of good shooters, too.
One of them is 6-5 junior Dillon Kidd, whom Edwards said is a much-improved player who should play a major role for the Scotties. The inside game also features 6-6 senior Daniel Goodpaster, who was hampered by injuries last season, and 6-9 senior Bill Davis.
Daryl Smith, a 5-9 junior, will become a bigger force in the backcourt, along with 5-11 senior Blake Yeager, who sat out last season, 5-10 senior Brian Stamper and 5-9 junior Logan Hazelwood.
8. LINCOLN COUNTY (6-21)
The Patriots might be poised to become the most improved team in the region, and there’s plenty of room for improvement after a season in which they were outscored by nearly 300 points.
Lincoln may be a year away from becoming a serious regional contender, but then again, maybe not. Either way, what was a young team last year remains a young team this season, with only three seniors and a number of players who still have a lot of learning to do.
Forwards Matt Reynolds and Zach Kersey and guard Kelly Reed comprise the senior class. The junior class includes center Derek Todd and guards Trent Calhoun, Christian Johnson and Chase Overstreet. Johnson is a first-year player, and Overstreet transferred from Danville.
Lincoln will also use some sophomores who got experience as freshmen last season, including Daniel Ralston, already one of the team’s top players, Ryan Young and Noah Keeton.
“We can have a good team by the end of the year,” Lincoln coach Jeff Jackson said.
9. PULASKI COUNTY (15-12)
Heavy graduation losses leave the Maroons in a rebuilding mode, but coach Dave Fraley has two impressive building blocks in brothers Ty and John Perkins, who came to Pulaski from Wayne County last year.
Ty, a freshman forward, is already one of the region’s top players. John, a junior guard, will also be one of the Maroons’ most valuable players. Senior center Benjamin Meeks gives Pulaski experience and an inside presence.
10. McCREARY CENTRAL (4-22)
If Lincoln isn’t the most improved team in the region this season, McCreary might be. The Raiders won only four games last season, but they were close in many more, and coach Robert Jones said they should be even more competitive this season.
This is still a young team as well, counting on sophomores and juniors to carry most of the load. Junior guard Josh Bartley, last year’s leading scorer with 16 per game, leads the way, along with sophomore guard Josh Phillips.
11. WAYNE COUNTY (8-21)
The Cardinals left the 47th District with a string of 12 straight district titles, but extending that string in their first year in the 48th will be tough.
Wayne will have a young team for the second straight year, having lost only three seniors. And the Cardinals must find a replacement for the offense and the leadership produced by one of those seniors, Steven Sexton.
Junior guard Wesley Dick is Wayne’s top returning player.
12. ROCKCASTLE COUNTY (19-12)
Rockcastle was able to contend in the 13th Region for the last several years, but big changes make it less likely that the Rockets will be a big player in their first year in the 12th.
Former assistant coach Benny Blanton took over as head coach after Clayton Cash resigned. There were heavy graduation losses after Rockcastle reached the 13th Region title game last year, but junior forwards Colby Brown and J.C. McClure return to the lineup.
13. CASEY COUNTY (7-21)
Inconsistency is an issue for the Rebels, who have experience, shooting ability and a little size. They also tend to commit turnovers in bunches, and coach Perry Walters said the defensive intensity he craves hasn’t always been there.
If those two things change, Casey could be on the rise this season behind 6-7 junior center Keith Price, who played more than ever this summer and is quicker and stronger as a result.
Another senior, 6-3 Jason Sanders, is also stronger at power forward. Senior Corey Dial returns at guard, and senior Andie Cannon gives Casey another good outside shooter. Juniors Will Johnson, Dustun Vest and Casey Coppage will also contribute.
14. MONTICELLO (6-22)
The Trojans reached the regional last year with only six wins, and coach Gary Abbott says they’re rebuilding again. Abbott doesn’t mind being picked fourth in the district again, and he said his team should improve as the season goes along and it overcomes injuries that slowed it down this summer.
Senior guard Phillip Inman is one of only two returning starters. Last year’s point guard, Mike Borden, tore a knee ligament in the regional tournament and decided not to return.
Abbott said most positions will be filled by sophomores, along with some first-year juniors and seniors.
15. GARRARD COUNTY (15-14)
The Golden Lions lose four starters and their sixth man, even as they make the move from the 46th District to the 45th, where they will struggle to keep pace with Boyle, Danville and Lincoln.
Scott Bolin returns as head coach after taking the job on an interim basis last season, but there are few other familiar faces at Garrard. The only returning starter is 6-3 junior forward Kent Johnson, who barely averaged in double figures in scoring last year but has become a leader for the Lions.
Senior guard Justin Christian is emerging as a tenacious defender, senior guard Aaron Huffman brings sound fundamentals to the court, and freshman Justin Ray has the inside track at point guard. Bolin said he may use 10 or 11 players, most of whom are of virtually equal talent.
16. HARRODSBURG (6-19)
The Pioneers were lacking on offense last year, but they return three starters: senior forward Kenton Masterson and junior guards Cory Jackson and Chrys Jones. Junior forward Chase Wofford should also play a larger role on the inside, while Jackson will be the floor leader and junior DeMarkus Masterson will bring tremendous athletic ability to the floor.
17. BURGIN (3-23)
The Bulldogs has experience, and that’s something for a team that had the region’s worst record last year. But coach Don Irvine says they are still developing and still relatively young. Senior forward Daniel Howard and junior forward Daniel Loane will be the leaders on offense, while seniors Chris Perkins and Ryan Steer will provide leadership along with Howard.
18. KENTUCKY SCHOOL for the DEAF (6-12)
Junior forward Drew Meade, sophomore guard Brad Davis and senior forward Roderick Hodge return to lead the Colonels, while freshman Travis Zornoza will settle in at point guard in coach Kevin Hamilton’s second season.
Top Players in the Region
1. Brian Staed, Boyle County, 6-9 Sr. C
Stronger and more confident than ever, Staed is the dominating big man every coach craves. A penchant for foul trouble and uncertainty in the lane have been replaced by the ability to take over a game on either end of the floor, and the attention he’s getting from college coaches is only increasing.
2. Dustin Fothergill, Southwestern, 6-3 Sr. G
The son of former Somerset and University of Maryland star Mark Fothergill has found his own place in the spotlight with his ability to operate anywhere on the floor. He can shoot from the outside, play or guard the point, drive to the basket or defend the middle, and he the kind of court smarts coaches wish they could teach.
3. Erich Downey, East Jessamine, 6-3 Sr. C
Downey might be the region’s best pure athlete, and he uses that athleticism to dominate on the boards and pile up points. He might need to be more consistent, especially as a scorer, but little else is lacking in his game.
4. Nathan Holton, Somerset, 6-6 Sr. C
Holton has come a long way since the start of last season, and he gives Somerset a big man who can also shoot from the perimeter.
5. Darius Baughman, Danville, 6-3 Sr. F
Baughman jumps like a wide receiver -- which he is -- shoots from the wings without fear and drives the baseline in a flash, making him a threat anywhere on the floor.
6. Ty Perkins, Pulaski County, 6-4 Fr. F
Only a freshman, Perkins is another gifted leaper who might be Pulaski’s best player already and could be its next big star.
7. Andy Cole, Somerset, 6-3 Sr. F
Cole has gotten stronger and become a better finisher around the basket, as well as a leader on a senior-rich Somerset squad.
8. Brian Johnson, West Jessamine, 6-4 Sr. F
Johnson is another standout in a strong crop of seniors, capable of playing anywhere but most valuable on the inside.
9. Keith Price, Casey County, 6-7 Jr. C
Price’s best days are still ahead of him, but he’ll have plenty of good days this year after an off-season of improvement positions him to be Casey’s most valuable player.
10. Michael Bottoms, Mercer County, 6-2 Sr. F
Bottoms has more help on an improving Mercer team, but he still stands out as its best offensive option.
11. Josh Bartley, McCreary Central, 6-0 Jr. G
Bartley has shown rapid improvement, and his backcourt skills will help McCreary improve as well.
12. Clay Carter, Boyle County, 6-4 Sr. F
Carter can move shoot from the perimeter with deadly accuracy or move in the middle, and he gives Boyle the perfect answer when opponents collapse on Staed.
13. Wesley Dick, Wayne County, 6-2 Jr. G
Dick should emerge as a leader on a Wayne team that can use one.
14. Justin Doolin, Danville, 6-4 Sr. F
Doolin doesn’t have to play as large a role at Danville as he did at Harrodsburg, but he’s still a very valuable addition.
15. Casey Dalton, Southwestern, 6-0 Jr. G
The indefatigable Dalton is a playmaker who handles his role as the traffic director on the region’s busiest street with ease.