Last fall, Hutchinson Community College men's coach Steve Eck had a message for anyone that would listen at the Jayhawk Conference's basketball media day.
The league was going to be better this year, he said. A lot better.
Man, was he right.
Led by a group of top-flight Division I recruits, the Region VI Tournament rolls into Koch Arena today with a bevy of star talent, the likes of which might be unmatched in the past decade.
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"You could kind of tell during recruiting season that the conference was going to be up this year," said Eck, whose team will face Independence in Saturday's quarterfinals. "It turned out to be very true."
Jayhawk West champion Seward County, the tournament top seed, has one of the top junior-college recruits in 6-foot-2 guard Jeremy Jones, who averages 18.1 points and 4.5 assists. Jones was named the West MVP on Thursday.
Fans in Liberal have been star-struck at home games this season with Kansas State's Frank Martin, West Virginia's Bob Huggins, Marquette's Buzz Williams, Oklahoma State's Travis Ford and Utah's Jim Boylen among the coaches who have come to watch Jones play.
"Every major conference has got somebody after him," Seward coach Bryan Zollinger said. "Big East, Big 12, Pac-10... you name it. And for a kid whose phone is ringing from the moment he wakes up until the moment he goes to bed, he's handled it amazingly well."
Jones, like Coffeyville sophomore guards Kevin Broussard and Stacy Wilson, has said he won't pick a school until after the Region VI Tournament. The duo led the Red Ravens to a second-place finish in Region VI as freshmen.
Broussard (6-foot) leads Coffeyville with 15 points and shoots 44.2 percent from beyond the arc. Wilson (6-3) averages 14.3 points.
"We've approached Kevin and Stacy about where they're going to go, but both have said they want to wait," Coffeyville coach Jay Herkelman said. "They're both going Division I, no doubt, but right now their focus is entirely on what we're doing."
Cowley sophomore guard Tyrus McGee, the Jayhawk East MVP, averages 20.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists and already has signed with Iowa State. He was joined this year by high school teammate James Watson, a 6-8 forward who came to Ark City after playing his freshman year at Washington State.
"You look at the eight teams in Wichita and every single one has a guy who can take over a game," Cowley coach Tommy DeSalme said. "The X-factor is going to be who can get their role players to step up. That team will likely be your champion."
Eck has his own star in Wichita Southeast product Joe Mitchell, a 6-1 guard signed with Ohio who averages 18.2 points and 4.4 assists. The Blue Dragons also have 6-9 forward Robert Goff, who signed with Oklahoma.
And, if all that's not enough, the very best of the group might be Kansas City forward Dennis Tinnon, a 6-7 sophomore who averages 22.9 points and 13.1 rebounds. Tinnon is headed to Marshall.
"If Jones is the best player in the West, Tinnon is the guy in the East," said longtime high school and junior-college recruiting guru Jerry Mullen. "I've gotten to see him play quite a bit this year, and he's taken a group of pretty average players and put them on his back to get to Wichita. He's an amazing talent."