The eight teams we thought would make it to the Seventh Region tournament have made it, and it is a familiar bunch. Six of the teams (St. X, Ballard, Trinity, Male, Central and Manual) have played in the Seventh Region tournament every year since the Sixth and Seventh Regions were realigned prior to the 2011-12 season. Eastern has been every year but one year since then, and this is Waggener’s fourth appearance in those seven years.
One thing that tells me is that the teams that are routinely the best in the Seventh Region are pretty evenly distributed among the four districts. That said, it is a pity that a team as good as this year’s Seneca team did not make it to the regional tournament because they are in the same district as two of the top five teams in the state (Trinity and Waggener).
It also tells me that size matters in the Seventh Region. Each of the eight teams playing in this week’s Seventh Region tournament is among the ten largest schools in the region. The smallest of the eight schools participating is Waggener, with 887 students according to the KHSAA attendance figures. The reality is that the smaller (mostly private) schools in the Seventh Region have no realistic chance of making it to the regional tournament, much less the state tournament.
In looking at this field, I think it is fair to say that at least four of the participants have a realistic chance of winning the tournament, including two teams playing each other in the first round. Each of the first round games will be played Monday night. A look at each of the first round match-ups:
St. Xavier Tigers (17-10) at Ballard Bruins (21-11)
Two solid teams that perhaps are being overlooked because of the seasons enjoyed by some of the other Seventh Region teams. St. X won its first 9 games of the season, including an impressive 64-58 win over Waggener. St. X lost its top returning player from last season, James Taylor, during that stretch, and has gone 8-10 since winning those first nine games. Ballard has won the Seventh Region tournament every odd-numbered year since 2013. The Bruins present an interesting picture coming into this year’s tournament. They beat Trinity 69-65 in the King of the Bluegrass (albeit Trinity was without David Johnson at that point), but lost to Waggener this season for the first time ever and has 3 losses in the month of February, including losing 62-59 to Male on February 8. All of Ballard’s losses have been to good teams, and the Chris Renner-coached Bruins always seem to play their best in the post-season. I include Ballard among the teams that have a realistic chance of advancing to the state tournament. As for this first-round match-up, Ballard beat St. X 70-59 on January 25. I expect a similar result this time around.
DuPont Manual Crimsons (10-20) at Waggener Wildcats (28-3)
This would seem to be a match-up between two teams with different expectations. After losing to St. X on December 7, Waggener has won 24 of its last 26 games. Its two losses during that span were both to Trinity, losses Waggener avenged when it beat Trinity 58-47 in the district tournament final. With a balanced attack led by the very talented duo of JJ Kalakon and Jocobi Hendricks, Waggener is a top-five team. Manual comes into the Seventh Region tournament as the only participant with a losing record, and its only victory over another team playing in the Seventh Region tournament was a 63-58 win over Eastern in its first game of the season. Eli Roberts has had a nice season for the Crimsons, but I don’t see the Crimsons achieving a different result from the game these teams played on February 15, when Waggener defeated Manual 76-58.
Trinity Shamrocks (22-7) at Male Bulldogs (22-9)
Trinity has been the top-ranked team in the Seventh Region the entire season. The Rocks hit a dip during the regular season when David Johnson was out a couple weeks with an injury, but he is back and playing extremely well. I believe he is the most complete player in the state. The challenge Trinity has faced at times is when Johnson does not get much scoring support from his teammates. Stan Turnier averages 12.4 ppg and needs to hit from the outside for Trinity to be at its best; in Trinity’s 58-47 loss to Waggener in the district tournament final, Turnier was limited to 8 points on 4 of 11 shooting. Male’s heralded class that includes Howard Fleming, Tyren Moore, and Noah Courtney has reached its junior year. Fleming missed the early part of the season recuperating from off-season shoulder surgery, with Tyren Moore taking the opportunity to establish himself as a monster offensive player, averaging 17.9 ppg. Fleming eventually returned to the Bulldog lineup, after which Male took it up a notch, winning 10 of its last 11 games. That stretch included wins over Ballard (62-59 on February 8) and Trinity (77-74 in triple overtime on February 2). That was the second game these teams had played this year; Trinity won the prior game, a 61-51 victory on January 16 in the LIT.
I don’t know who is going to win this game. I just hope to be there. But if I had to pick, I would pick Trinity. Should be a great one.
Eastern Eagles (15-15) at Central Yellowjackets (18-8)
This has the potential to be a really good game. These teams played on February 13, with Eastern winning 69-62 in overtime. Eastern has won 6 of its last 8 games, a stretch that included wins against Central Hardin and Seneca in addition to its victory over Central. Its only losses during that stretch were to Waggener on February 8 and to Ballard by 2 in the district final. Central, on the other hand, lost its last four regular season games heading into the post-season, although in addition to Eastern the losses were to Seneca, Trinity and Ballard. That is consistent with my overall impression of Central, that their quality coaching and high energy play will be enough to beat a lot of teams but usually will not be enough when they play the top teams in the region (although Central did beat Male 84-73 on Dec. 7). What does all of that mean for Monday night? Who knows. These teams are evenly matched and both are well-coached. I’m inclined to say that Eastern seems to be playing a little better than Central right now, as evidenced by its win two weeks ago, but it really is a toss-up. So I will leave it at that – a toss-up between two evenly-matched teams. Good luck to both teams.
Beyond the Opening Round
I will post a preview of the semi-finals to be played on Thursday night once we see who advances out of the first round. For now, let’s focus on the fun these first-round games should bring.