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Boys’ 8th Region Preview – 8 Teams, 7 games, 1 champion to be crowned at the Roy.

By: Colonelmike

We’re nearing the end point of the season – but before we get to the BIG DANCE, we first have to go through what many feel is the part of the season that is the quintessential essence of high school basketball. The region tournament. And nowhere is the region tournament more revered and steeped in tradition than in the northcentral Kentucky, the home of the 8th Region basketball tournament.

Eight teams remain in contention for a berth in this year’s boys’ Sweet 16 tournament. Those eight teams will all travel to the Roy L. Winchester gymnasium at Henry County high school this week and next to decide the issue. With defending 8th region champion Walton-Verona eliminated in the District 32 tournament, we are guaranteed a new titleist this year.

A look back at Walton’s accomplishment last season. By defeating Oldham County in last year’s title game, the Bearcats became the first team from a “small” school to win the 8th Region Tournament since Carroll County beat Bullitt Central, 80-55, in 1972. Walton was also the first team to win the title that wasn’t from the 29th or 30th districts since 2004.

This year’s group of contenders brings perhaps an elevated level of excitement to the annual reunion at the Roy. Although the region tourney has often featured several legitimate contenders, its share of upsets, and an appropriate level of uncertainty, this year may be one of the most wide-open tournaments in many years. Five teams enter the tournament with 20 or more wins to their credit. Two teams – Oldham County (#12 in the Bluegrasspreps.com Top 20) and Collins (#14) – are ranked. All eight teams have winning records, the first time since 2014. And even thought the region rankings have consistently featured four teams at the top – Collins, Oldham County, South Oldham, and Simon Kenton – the rest of the pack has had its moments. Grant County has beaten Simon Kenton…. Woodford County defeated Oldham County. Gallatin County won the 8th Region All-A tournament.

Bottom-line: Hold onto your hats. This one should be fun.

District champions:

29th District – Oldham County (28-3)

Current Streak: Oldham has won 4 straight and 19 of 20.

Bluegrasspreps rank in the Region / state rank: #1 / #12

RPI: .67685

All Region Players: Deaton Oak, Tyler Slone

Record Versus Tournament Teams: 6-1

Oldham County comes into the tournament as the hottest team in the field, having won 19 of their last 20 games. During that stretch, the Colonels (28-3), have garnered victories over South Oldham (twice), #14 Collins, Tates Creek, LaRue County, North Oldham, Beechwood, and Simon Kenton. Oldham County comes into the tournament with a record of 6-1 against its fellow tournament participants, with Oldham’s only loss to a tournament rival coming back in mid-December, when the Colonels fell by 5 in Versailles to Woodford County.

Interestingly, the Colonels drew Woodford County for their first round game in the tournament, resurrecting the age-old question: Who has the advantage, from a mental standpoint? The underdog who pulled the upset last time and is confident in their ability to do it again? Or the favorite, who is focused and motivated to get revenge?

Regardless, the Colonels come into the tournament as the prohibitive favorite. The Colonels, whose roster is dominated by juniors, spread out their scoring, with four players averaging in double digits: Junior guard Doug Oak (15.0 ppg), junior Tyler Slone (12.9 ppg), junior Sam Campbell (11.6 ppg), and junior Xander Wagner-Rose (10.3 ppg).

Eighth Region Coach of the Year Coy Zerhusen has always preached a defensive philosophy that features constant pressure, both in the full-court and half-court settings. The 2020 team is deep – and healthy. This should give Zerhusen the ability to unleash the full impact of his pressure for the entirety of the game.

Who’s hot: Deaton Oak. The junior is averaging just over 20 ppg over the last 7 contests, and is making just over 3.5 threes per contest. Oak had 37 points, including 7 threes, in the District 29 final against South Oldham.


30th District – Collins (24-7)

Current Streak: Collins has won five straight

Bluegrasspreps rank in the Region / state rank: Tied #2 / #14

RPI: .66407

All Region Players: Player of the Year Dayvion McKnight, Marcellus Vail

Record Versus Tournament Teams: 6-2

The Collins Titans went through a rough six game stretch during the latter part of the season, but they’ve righted the ship in an impressive way. Despite playing short-handed – Collins is apparently missing two starters right now in Caleb Hawley and Tyson Turner – the Titans have won five straight in decisive fashion. Collins won their two district tournament games by an average of 21 points as what was expected to be a very competitive 30th district tournament turned out to be a Titans romp.

The 14th-ranked Titans feature two Division-1 caliber senior guards in 8th Region Player of the Year Dayvion McKnight (20.3 ppg) and Marcellus Vail (15.3). If both players can avoid fouls and stay on the court, the Titans are hard to beat. McKnight is a double-double machine and Vail is probably the Titans’ best outside threat. If either or both get into foul trouble, though, the Titans’ victory chances take a serious hit.

Collins is an exceptionally good shooting team, hitting over 51% from the field and over 72% at the line. The Titans’ are just average beyond the arc, but that isn’t the focus of their attack, which revolves around getting the ball to the rim on dribble penetration.

With Hawley and Turner apparently done for the season, the Titans’ chances may hinge on increased contributions from someone who has not been a major scoring contributor this year, such as Darrian Crittendon, Ben Omer, or Dawson Eden.

Chris Gaither is in his ninth season at the helm in Shelbyville; he’s only had one losing season during that stretch.

Who’s hot: Since the loss to Oldham County, McKnight is averaging 20 points and 10.3 rebounds per game (not counting the district final).

Collins will face the homestanding Henry County Wildcats in round one. The two teams did not meet in the regular season.


31st District – Gallatin County (17-14)

Current Streak: Gallatin has won 6 of 8

Bluegrasspreps rank in the Region / state rank: #11 / unranked

RPI: .50149

All Region Players: Jarin Rassman

Record Versus Tournament Teams: 2-5

Gallatin County (17-14) won its third consecutive district title, downing Henry County by a surprisingly easy 64-48 count. The Wildcats have had an up-and-down year in terms of wins and losses, but when push comes to shove, the Cats have risen to the challenge, winning the 8th Region All-A tournament and racing through the 31st district tournament with ease.

Jarin Rassman has been the Wildcats’ undisputed leader; the senior guard has had a monster year statistically, averaging 19.5 ppg and 7.1 rebounds per game.
Rassman has been the do-it-all resource for the Cats. Rassman is an excellent passer and few guards can rebound like he can. Adept at getting the ball to the rim, Rassman is hitting 54.8% from the floor. And – though free throw shooting was a weakness in December –

Rassman has dramatically improved his shooting at the stripe, which is good news for Gallatin County since he has shot 47% of Gallatin’s total attempted free throws. The improvement is dramatic; in the 31st district finale against Henry County, he made 8 of 10.

Gallatin’s biggest challenge in the region may be their overall shooting percentage, which is hovering around 42%, below what we normally see from Gallatin County.

Jon Jones is the longest-tenured coach in the 8th Region; he’s been at the helm of the Wildcats for over 20 years. 6

Gallatin County will face Grant County in the first round, a team that beat the Wildcats by a dozen during the regular season. Grant outshot Gallatin, 57% to 36%, in that game and outrebounded the Cats, 38-22.

The Wildcats have made it to the semi-finals of the region in each of the last three seasons.


32nd District – Simon Kenton (22-9)

Current Streak: SK has won 7 straight

Bluegrasspreps rank in the Region / state rank: #4 / unranked

RPI: .60524

All Region Players: Kelly Niece

Record Versus Tournament Teams: 4-3

This may be the most dangerous Simon Kenton team to come to New Castle in a few years.
The Pioneers feature one of the most productive guard duos in the region in Kelly Niece (18.8 ppg) and Jeremy Davis (16.1 ppg), two sharpshooters that can light up the scoreboard.
Niece, one of the best all-around players in the 8th Region, is certainly one of the best marksmen. The junior hit 60.6% of his shots – an amazing figure for someone who shoots mostly jump shots – while also connecting on 39.3% of his threes, making 35 on the season so far. At the line, Niece is deadly at 78.2%.

Niece’s running mate, senior Jeremy Davis, is one of the best three point shooters ever to come through the 8th Region. Davis has made 41 two-pointers on the season – and 116 threes, second-most in Kentucky. Despite the fact that nearly 75% of his shots have come from beyond the arc, Davis is hitting 51.6% of his shots overall – including 49.6% from beyond the arc. Like Niece, he’s a deadeye at the stripe, hitting 78.8%.

The supporting cast shoots the ball well, too. The next two players who have shot the ball the most, Logan Schwartz and Andrew Smith, are hitting 59.7% and 50% of their shots, respectively. SK, as a team, sits at 52.1% from the floor overall, 39.3% beyond the arc, and 75.7% at the line.

It’s difficult to outscore Simon Kenton. And – since Niece has started playing at 100%, it’s been even tougher. Over the last 17 games – during which SK went 14-3 – the Pioneers have averaged 71.8 ppg, while being held under 60 points only twice. During that stretch, the Pioneers have scored over 75 points ten times.

It all adds up to a dangerous team that has a legitimate shot at winning the first region 8 title for the school since Simon Kenton joined the 8th Region in 2006.

Trent Steiner is in his 17th season at SK, the third-longest tenure in the region behind Jon Jones of Gallatin County and Steve Simpson of South Oldham.


DISTRICT RUNNER-UPS

District 29 – South Oldham (22-9)

Current Streak: South Oldham has won six of their last 8 games.

Bluegrasspreps rank in the Region / state rank: Tied #2 / unranked

RPI: .61722

All Region Players: Luke Morrison, Seth Johnson

Record Versus Tournament Teams: 3-3

The South Oldham Dragons are probably the scariest runner-up team in the tournament.

First of all, the Dragons are one of five 20+ win teams in the tourney. They have played a strong schedule this season, notching victories over such noted teams as #16-ranked Warren Central, #20 LaRue County, and North Bullitt. South is tops in the region in scoring at over 77 points per game, and the Dragons are the most prolific three-point shooting team in the state of Kentucky, having hit more threes – and at an impressive 41.7% clip – than any team in the Commonwealth.

South has redefined expectations of what a high school offense can do. This season, in 31 games, South has scored over 80 points in 13 games, including three of the last four. (South was “held” to “just” 77 points in the district semi-final win over North Oldham.)

Individually, two Dragons made the All-Region team, and Luke Morrison came within an eyelash of winning the region Player of the Year award for a second year in a row.

Steve Simpson is in his 20th season at South Oldham, where he has won 388 games and all three of the school’s regional titles. Simpson seems to be only getting better as the years go by – the Dragons have won 3 region titles in the last 7 seasons, and the coach is averaging around 22 wins per season over the last 11 years.

The Dragons’ style of play is frenetic; South will launch the threes until the opposition starts to crowd them on the three-point line, at which time the Dragons will aggressively attack the basket. It’s difficult to guard South because every player on the court has the green light to shoot the three, and all shoot it well. Four of five starters are hitting over 43% from beyond the arc, and the fifth is hitting a respectable 33%.

Overall, South is one of the elites in the region in shooting. Despite taking 48.3% of their shots from beyond the arc, the Dragons are hitting a staggering 51.1% overall. At the line, the Dragons are adept at winning the close ones with a 74.5% shooting clip.

Defensively, the Dragons will give up points, but the defense probably doesn’t get the credit it should get. Simpson will mix up defenses throughout a game, ranging from various full-court presses to straight-up man-to-man half court sets. Against Oldham County in the district 29 finals, the Dragons gave up 88 points – but it was the defense that nearly won the day late with a trapping three-quarter court 1-3-1 zone that forced a number of late turnovers, erasing a 13 point deficit and giving the Dragons a chance to win in the final minute.

Unfortunately for one of the district champs, they had to draw this team – a team that is actually ranked above all of them. The champs of the 32nd district, Simon Kenton, earned that opportunity.

The Dragons will need every point they can get in their first round matchup with Simon Kenton, a team they did not play this season. In what may be the most exciting matchup of the entire tournament, two of the region’s best-shooting, highest-scoring teams drew each other to kick off the tournament on Wednesday night. Four of the best shooting guards in the region – Kelly Niece and Jeremy Davis of SK; Luke Morrison and Seth Johnson of South – will be on the court at the same time. The team that can manufacture the most defensive stops probably wins in what should be a high-flying, high-scoring affair.


District 30 – Woodford County (17-15)

Current Streak: Woodford has lost four of its last five games.

Bluegrasspreps rank in the Region / state rank: Tied #8 / unranked

RPI: .56661

All Region Players: Hunter Penn

Record Versus Tournament Teams: 1-4

Woodford County is the new kid on the block, having just moved from the 11th Region to the 8th this season. The Yellowjackets gave a good accounting of themselves this year, finishing with 17 wins and a competitive 6-6 mark against Region 8 opposition.

Woodford faced a pretty rugged schedule this year, with a lot of high-powered 11th region teams on the schedule. The Jackets played a number of teams that were ranked at the time they played, including Ashland, Paul Laurence Dunbar, George Rogers Clark, and Oldham County, plus a number of other teams that were highly regarded or were in and out of the rankings, like Clay County, St. X, Tates Creek, North Oldham, Henry Clay, Simon Kenton, South Oldham, and Frederick Douglass. The Jackets held their own, gaining wins over Paul Dunbar, North Oldham, GRC, and a big upset win in come-from-behind fashion in December against Oldham County. Woodford was one of only two Kentucky schools to defeat Oldham.

Ironically, the Yellowjackets have drawn Oldham County as their first-round opponent in their first-ever 8th Region tournament. It should be interesting to see if Oldham an get a little revenge for December, or if Woodford can repeat the feat.

Junior center Hunter Penn led the Jackets all year, with a 13.5 ppg average and 8.4 rebounds per game. He was the linchpin that held this team together; when he went down with an injury against Walton-Verona in late January, it unhinged the Jackets, who lost 4 of their next five games without him. Penn’s a big man who moves well; he also hits 62.1% of his shots from the floor.

Ashton Myles-Devore and Anthony Tabor are two names you should know on the Yellowjacket roster. Both guards average over 11 points per game, but both are explosive scorers who can score much more. Although the three isn’t a focus of the Woodford offense, both can shoot the three well. Myles-Devore is 42 of 93 for an impressive 45.2% beyond the arc, while Tabor is 37 of 87 for 42.5%.

Shooting has been a prime concern for Woodford late in the season. After leading the region in shooting percentage in the first half of the season, the Yellowjackets have slumped in the second half of the year. The Jackets’ overall shooting percentage has fallen to 45.9% - down from over 51% - and Woodford’s free throw percentage has fallen to a below-average 60.1%. In Woodford’s last three games with published stats, the Jackets hit just 17 of 47 free throws (36.2%).

Of the eight coaches in the region tournament Jaron Brown is the newest to his team. Brown is in his first year in Versailles coaching the Jackets.


District 31 – Henry County (18-14)

Current Streak: Henry County has won 6 of its last 9 games

Bluegrasspreps rank in the Region / state rank: Tied #10 / unranked

RPI: .48657

All Region Players: Trevor Hardin

Record Versus Tournament Teams: 1-4

The Henry County Wildcats are back on their home hardwood to play in the Region 8 tournament for the third year in a row. Coach Enoch Welch and his squad played a “tale of two seasons” this year, struggling through an injury-riddled December before putting things together in mid-January for a big late-season run that saw them win 14 of their last 20 ballgames.

All-region center Trevor Hardin makes this team go, and when Hardin is “on”, he’s a double-double machine. Averaging 19.2 ppg and 9.0 rebounds, Hardin is difficult to handle on the inside for most teams. Ethan Lankford provides scoring support, averaging 19.2 ppg for the Cats.

Both Hardin and Lankford scored their 1,000th career point this season.

It’s critical for the Wildcats’ fortunes that Hardin and Lankford do well. With Hardin out with an ankle injury in December, the Cats struggled greatly to get a win. And in the district final against Gallatin County, Hardin spent a lot of time on the bench with foul trouble and Lankford was held to 2 points. Henry fell by 16 after splitting two games with Gallatin during the season.

Those are the only two double-digit scorers for Henry, but Ryan Phillips (6.7 ppg / 5 rebounds) and Kevin Wix (6.3 ppg) are capable of big games. Phillips tallied 10 points in the district semi-final win over Carroll County, and Wix was in double figures in the title game against Gallatin.

Coach Enoch Welch notched his 200th victory as the head coach at Henry County in February. Welch has guided this squad to the most wins in New Castle since the 2013-14 team went 20-11.

Henry will have a huge challenge in the first round against one of favorites to win the region, Collins. For Henry to win, the Wildcats will have to keep Hardin out of foul trouble, which won’t be easy against an extremely athletic Titans squad. The Cats will simply have to do a lot of the “little things” well in order to pull the upset.


District 32 – Grant County (21-10)

Current Streak: Grant County has won 12 of their last 15 games

Bluegrasspreps rank in the Region / state rank: Tied #7 / unranked

RPI: .56597

All Region Players: Luke Dawalt, Jack Epperson

Record Versus Tournament Teams: 4-4

This is another awfully tough matchup for an unlucky district champion. The Braves are enjoying their best season since 2012-13, when the Braves went 24-6. And it’s Grant’s first appearance in New Castle since the 2015 season.

Furthermore, perhaps only Oldham County comes into the tournament on more of a tear.
The Braves will face 31st district champion Gallatin County in the final game of the first round on Thursday.

Coach Joe Utter has done a remarkable job with this team. The Braves had the core back from a 19 win team last year, but depth looked to be a serious concern in the preseason. Whether the Braves could win 20 plus games in a deep, balanced 8th Region was a legitimate question. The answer? A definite “yes”. The core of last year’s team provided all the firepower necessary in the first third of the season, with All-Region senior center Luke Dawalt leading the way (15.5 ppg / 8.4 rebounds). Jack Epperson and Ben Vickers both chipped in over 13 points a contest, and Blake Robinson took a big step up from his sophomore season, increasing his average by over 8 points per game to 10.6 a contest, while hitting 52 threes along the way.

But it was probably the development of two freshmen into strong contributors that made the difference for Grant. Dylan Hammonds (9.5 ppg) and Mason Guffey (6.7) Hammonds shot a team-best 64.9% from the floor, and Guffey hit 49 threes, while connecting on over 39% of his perimeter shots.

Grant is another great free throw shooting team in a season featuring a lot of great free throw shooting teams. The Braves are hitting 71.9% as a team at the line, with Jack Epperson leading the way at 82.9%.

A good shooting team, the Braves have put up the points all season, but the team’s Achilles’ Heel may be its defense. Grant is giving up over 60 points per game this season; the Braves are 2-5 when Grant scores fewer than 65 points.

The Braves have posted some big wins this year, including a late January win over Simon Kenton. The Braves also defeated their first round opponent in the 8th Region tournaey, Gallatin County, by a dozen.