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Well, it finally is here. The annual pilgrimage to The Roy in New Castle.

It all started in 1963, right after Henry County HS built the big gym near the center of the 8th region. The 8th region had been held in 1962 at Shelbyville HS, and the Henry County Wildcats had won the affair. Now it moved to the big, shiny new arena in New Castle, patterned after the old Freedom Hall.

55 seasons and 385 tournament games later, the 8th is still played annually at what we now call the "Roy L. Winchester Gymnasium" or, more typically, simply "The Roy". It's the longest stretch of time that any region in the state has played its tournament at the same location...

During those 55 seasons, 11 different teams have earned a regional title. Oldham County won the first, in 1963, and duplicated the feat a year later. Shelby County has won the most region tournaments in the gym, 16 titles, followed by Oldham County with 14.

Scott County follows with 10 titles during the time span, Anderson County (4), South Oldham (3), Collins (2), Shelbyville (2), Carroll County (1), Grant County (1), Bullitt Central (1), and Bullitt East (1).

Shelbyville no longer exists; Scott County, Bullitt East, and Bullitt Central have been re-districted out of region 8.

Collins and South Oldham have dominated the past five seasons.... Collins is the defending champ, and also won in 2015. South has won the other three titles over the last five years, in 2013, 2014, and 2016. Ironically, only once during that five year stretch (Collins, 2015) was the region won by a district champion. The other four years, South and Collins were district runner-ups.

Since re-districting in 2006, the region has only been won by teams from the southern districts, districts 29 and 30. South Oldham and Oldham County have each won 3 titles during that span, representing the 29th. Likewise, the 30th district owns 6 titles total, with Shelby County (3), Collins (2), and Anderson County (1) divvying them up.

The 32nd district has made the finals 3 times during that span, with SK losing three times in the championship game.

The 31st district has made the final game once, with Gallatin County falling in their only appearance.

This year, the field looks loaded:

Collins (22-9) - the defending champs have been hot of late, winning 2 of the last 3 titles. Chris Gaither's 2018 team may be better than either of his previous two titleists. Only Oldham County has as many all-region players as Collins, who has three. Collins, however, was upset in the finals of the 30th district, meaning they will play a district champion in round one (in this case, Oldham County)

Walton-Verona (26-5) - the lone ranked team in the region (per the Kentucky High School Sports - Latest Articles top 20 rankings) checks in at #11. The Bearcats lost 6'8" center Dieonte Miles in December for the season, but it hasn't seemed to slow Walton down one bit. Walton-Verona comes in as champs of the 32nd district.

Oldham County (26-5) - the Colonels have flirted with the rankings all year, and hold some of the most impressive out of region victories by any region 8 team. The Colonels feature a senior-dominated lineup that includes 3 all -region players. Oldham has now won the 29th district eight season in a row.

Gallatin County (25-7) - the champions of the 31st District, Gallatin has posted back-to-back 20+ win seasons. This is a sharp shooting team with players that figure prominently among the state's leading shooters.

South Oldham (17-11) - the Dragons come in losers of 4 of their last 5, but cannot be counted out. Winners of 3 of the last 5 regional titles, the Dragons have a strong coaching staff that knows what it takes to get to the Sweet 16, and they have enough size and shooting talent to get there. Devin Young is one of the region's best scorers at 21.2 ppg.

Simon Kenton (19-9) Simon Kenton has a powerful team that is capable of beating anyone, and they feature two all-region performers in 6'5" senior center Zach Kelch and freshman guard Kelly Neice. However, SK is only 2-5 against teams in the tournament, and recently was dealt a blow, losing Andrew Robinson to a torn ACL.

Anderson County (11-15) At 11-15, Anderson is a bit of a surprise entry here - but maybe not. The Bearcats boast the 2018 Region Player of the Year in Cobe Penny, a senior guard who has scored over 2,000 points in his career and who averaged nearly 22 ppg this year. Dylan Pittman and Christian Gritton combine with Penny to form a three-headed monster that's hard to tame. The Cats have played in the last two regional finals, losing to South Oldham two years ago and Collins last year...

Henry County Wildcats (14-17) The Wildcats have lost four of their last five, but they won the important one when they defeated Carroll County, 78-74, in the semi-finals of the 31st district, earning them the region tourney slot. The Wildcats have battled injuries of late, but Henry will play this tournament in the comfort of their own gym, in front of their home fans.

The tourney will feature star-power; of the all-Region players, only one - Justin Rose of North Oldham - failed to make it to the region tournament.

MATCHUPS:

Henry County (14-17) vs. Anderson County (11-15) - OK, the conventional wisdom here is that these two teams were the big winners in the draw, as one of the only two teams with losing records in the tournament is guaranteed to advance to the semi-finals and be just one game away from the championship.

Henry comes in losers of 4 of their last 5 games, and the 31st district title game loss to Gallatin County was lopsided as the Wildcats fell, 66-22. The 22 points was the lowest scoring total for Henry County this season, and the defense continued a disturbing trend. Although generally regarded as perhaps the strength of this team midway through the season, Henry has now allowed 7 of their last 11 region eight opponents they've faced to score more than their average points per game. Many exceeded their season average by significant margins: Carroll +19, Shelby +21, Spencer +14, and Grant County +10. Only Williamstown and Trimble County (twice) failed to score their season average or more against Henry (North Oldham equaled their season average). Still, if Henry reaches 60 points, the defense has largely made it hold up; Henry County is 10-1 when scoring 60 points or more.

Landon Morgan continues to lead the Cats, with a 13.5 ppg average and 7.8 rebounds per game, both team highs. He's reached 20 or more points in three of the last six games.

From there, five different players average between 6.5 and 8.8 ppg.

Freshman Trevor Hardin is an up-and-coming star in New Castle; the freshman is averaging 8.8 ppg and 5.6 rebounds, both second-best on the squad.

Anderson County may have finally figured it out - but is it too late? Coach Glen Drury - the longest-tenured coach in the 8th region - brought what many believed to be the 8th region favorites to the 2017-18 season. But a funny thing happened on the way to the arena; the Bearcats simply failed to fire. Star center Christian Gritton struggled with injury problems early that stifled his development. The Cats failed to find a strong point guard to relieve Player of the Year Cobe Penny. And despite Cobe Penny's 22 ppg average, the losses mounted.

Now, after implementing a slow-down offense, the Bearcats have come up with back-to-back upsets over Spencer County and Collins to claim the 30th district tile. Gritton seems pretty healthy. And Penny is, well, Penny. Anderson scored only 44 points against both Spencer and Simon Kenton in the district tournament, but their defense made it hold up.

Athletically, Henry County cannot match up with Anderson. Gritton and Penny are man-to-man defense nightmares, so it would not be a surprise to see Henry throw a zone at Anderson in hopes of slowing down Penny's drives and denying the ball to Gritton .

On offense, despite the success of keeping the game low-scoring in the district, I don't expect Anderson to try to slow down this game. Look for the Bearcats to try to pick up the pace against the Wildcats.

Anderson County isn't a particularly strong three point shooting team, so in the end, this game will largely be decided in the paint. Either Anderson will be able to feed Gritton for a post move or allow Penny to create off the dribble - or Henry will be able to deny the Bearcats those options.

South Oldham (17-11) vs. Walton-Verona (26-5) The Bearcats are ranked #11 in the state, but South nearly knocked off the only ranked 8th region team a few weeks ago when losing by 6 at Walton.

Both teams shoot the ball well from the floor and from the line, and both teams feature a stable of players who can step up and score at any given time.

Walton-Verona features two all-region players: Zach Clinkenbeard (10.5 ppg / 5.8 rebounds) and Brennan Stanley (12.7 ppg). The two seniors are the anchors of this team. Clinkenbeard is equally adept at crashing the boards and shooting jumpers. Stanley, last year's top scorer at Williamstown, moved over to Walton-Verona in the off-season and has become their leading scorer now.

South counters with a bevy of fine shooters, including one of the region's top scorers in Devin Young, who averages 21.2 ppg. Young, a repeat all-region performer, is a defensive nightmare as the 6'7" senior guard rarely is faced with an opposing defender who can match his length.

The Bearcats are especially known for their defense; a rugged, grinding half court defense that just doesn't allow many easy shots. For the season, the Bearcats are giving up just 47.7 ppg - the lowest in the region.

That creates quite the plot, as South Oldham entered the post-season averaging 70.4 ppg, the most in the region. "The unstoppable force and the immoveable object" face off on Wednesday in New Castle.

South Oldham has played in a plethora of close games this year; a whopping 18 of 28 games have been decided by 9 points or less. The Dragons are 10-8 in those games, and 6-3 in games decided by three points or less.
Walton-Verona is the definite favorite in this game, but facing a quick South Oldham team that passes the ball well and shoots it well may be Walton's nightmare, as South's style looks to cause some problems. At the end of the day, however, South must rebound better to contend. Against a Walton team that averages over 30 rebounds a game, South cannot survive another outing on the boards like the Oldham County game, when the Colonels pounded them on the glass, 30-17 (Pegasus unofficial scoring).

Simon Kenton (19-9) vs Gallatin County (25-7) Gallatin County comes into the tournament on a roll, having won 14 of their last 18 games. Simon Kenton is also pretty hot right now, having won 10 of their last 14. The Pioneers suffered losses only to Collins (by 13), Oldham County (by 9), South Oldham (by 1) and Walton-Verona (by 2 on a last second shot) in those 14 games.

Simon Kenton won the regular season matchup by 12, and dominated that game in every way you could, including a 37-19 pounding of the Wildcats on the glass. But Simon suffered a key loss of late, with senior Andrew Robinson going to the sideline for the rest of the year following an ACL tear. Recently, Robinson - who was averaging 8.4 ppg - had dramatically raised his average after putting together five straight double-digit scoring outings.

SK features two all-region players: senior post player Zach Kelch, a 6'5" offensive machine, and freshman guard Kelly Niece, who leads the team in scoring at 16.5 ppg and who hits 53% of his shots.

Likewise, the Wildcats feature two all-region players: Troy Coomer leads the team in scoring at 16.8 ppg and Justin Rassman averages 14.6. Jaymee Hale is one of the state's most accurate shooters, hitting over 67% of his shots while averaging over 10 ppg.

Gallatin, however, has at times been one of the more perplexing teams in the region, and losses to Campbellsville and Beechwood were head-scratchers.

If strength of schedule means anything, give the edge to SK. Outside of two games against Walton-Verona, one against SK, one against South Oldham, and one against Anderson County, the Wildcats have played a very average schedule. They lost to all of those opponents except for Anderson County.

SK, on the other hand, has played a murderer's row schedule, facing top tier opposition such as Covington Catholic, Oldham County, South Oldham, Walton-Verona (twice), Collins, South Laurel, North Laurel, Cooper, Scott High, Gallatin County, and Campbell County. The Pioneers notched victories over Cooper, Gallatin County, and Campbell County (currently ranked #20).

If Gallatin can find a way to neutralize Kelch on the inside, and shore up its rebounding, the Wildcats certainly have the opportunity to knock off the Pioneers and advance to the region semi-finals for the second straight year. The loss of Robinson certainly helps Gallatin's cause as it takes a major contributor out of the SK lineup. With two veteran coaches on the sidelines, this may turn into a chess match all the way to a tight finish. If SK can stretch the defense with their perimeter shooters, however, it will open up the passing lanes to the post, and Kelch could have another strong showing in leading the Pioneers to the win.

Oldham County (26-5) vs Collins (22-9) Oh my goodness. What a game for a first-rounder: Two of the top 3 ranked teams in the 8th region go at it, thanks to Anderson County's upset of Collins in the 30th district finale. That sent the Titans into the region tournament as a runner-up, and set the stage for the 29th district champion Oldham County Colonels to draw Collins in a rematch of last year's first round game, won by Collins, by 3 points.

Oldham County leads the all-time series between the two teams, 7-2, but Collins has beaten the Colonels in 2 of their 3 meetings in the region tournament, including last year's first round game. The two teams have met twice in the region finals, with Oldham winning in 2012 and Collins winning in 2015.

The regular season matchup was played this year in Shelbyville, with Oldham County using its defensive pressure to rally from a 14 point deficit to win, 49-46, at Collins. Oldham's Jackson Gibson did not play in that game.

Both teams have had terrific seasons, and feature prolific starting fives. Each will put three all-region players on the court when they start the game Thursday: Jackson Gibson (16.2 ppg), Travis Henderson (16.3 ppg / 6.2 rebounds), and Zach Larimore (11.6 ppg / 5.6 rebounds) for Oldham County and Nick Fort (17.0 ppg / 7.4 rebounds), Dayvion McKnight (12.4 ppg / 8.1 rebounds), and Jacob Feltner (14.2 ppg / 51% beyond the arc) for Collins.

Oldham County ranks #2 in the region in scoring at 70.2 ppg; Collins isn't far behind at 68.3. Defensively, the Colonels are giving up 55.5 ppg; Collins is surrendering 59.5 ppg.

Collins has played a brutal schedule featuring #6 Madison Central, #3 Trinity, #8 Ballard, and #7 Doss. In the region, they've taken on most of the contenders, including Gallatin County, Oldham County, South Oldham, and Simon Kenton. The Titans have wins over South Oldham and Simon Kenton, plus Scott High (21-9).

Likewise, Oldham County, which has historically played tough schedules, has played one of the most aggressive schedules it has faced in a while. The Colonels registered big victories over the top-ranked teams from the Fourth and Fifth regions (Warren Central, currently ranked #17) and John Hardin (currently ranked #19). Oldham also owns wins over #11 Walton-Verona, Collins, and Simon Kenton in the 8th region. The Colonels lost to #13 Lafayette and later suffered a rematch loss to John Hardin.

So, who has the edge in this game? Maybe not anyone, really.

So maybe this one boils down to a number of little aspects of the game, that could prove pivotal:

- depth. If the bench comes into play, give the edge to Oldham County. Brandon Dewitt is a 6'3" guard who was a part-time starter all season, and he's a capable defender and scorer who started in the previous Oldham-Collins matchup, and who made the big plays late in Oldham's win. While Oldham can pull nearly 20 ppg off the bench, Collins' bench contributes about half that.
- outside shooting. Both teams can shoot the three, but Collins has the stud - Jacob Feltner, who has hit 98 of Collins' 212 made threes, hitting at a 51% clip from beyond the arc. If Oldham fails to find Feltner on defense, the Collins guard could make it a long night.
- Rebounding. These two teams have averaged almost the identical number of rebounds per game this season. For Oldham, Travis Henderson, Christian Harper, and Zach Larimore have to hit the glass and battle Nick Fort and Dayvion McKnight to a standstill on the glass, which is easier said than done. McKnight is, without a doubt, the best-rebounding guard in the 8th region and plays the glass more like a power forward. Oldham, which has historically been getting good board production from its guards, needs to continue to get that to keep up. Gibson's team-high 8 boards against South Oldham in the 29th district final was promising.
- Defense. Both coaches stake their reputations on their defense. For Oldham's Coy Zerhusen, that's a full court 2-2-1 press that disrupts and creates offense from turnovers. For Chris Gaither of Collins, that's a tenacious half-court defense that alters shots and denies passes. Which has the most effect in this game?

This is the last game of the first round - fittingly. It may be the best game of the whole tournament if these two teams play to their potential. Nobody wants to go home; can Oldham's senior-heavy lineup get it done?

All games of the boys' 8th region will be broadcast live (and archived) on The Pegasus Sports Network - PSN. Pegasus will be broadcasting video.

CM