BY TAYLOR ELDRIDGE
(Follow @teldridge for live updates)
Previewing the field
I truly believe that this 5A bracket has the chance to produce the best basketball of any in the state. There are four not just great teams, but elite teams in this field. Lansing used last season’s title game appearance as a spring board for this year, and it enters the field unblemished at 22-0. Hays does the same, owning an impressive win over Wichita East in Dodge City in January. And then you have 1-loss teams in Goddard Eisenhower and Topeka Highland Park, the two most athletic and dynamic teams in this field. All four of these teams are clearly a class above entering the tournament, but that does not make them immune to an upset.
The most ominous first round match-up certainly is Eisenhower’s draw with Wichita Heights. That’s not much of a reward for going 21-1, but that’s just how tough 5A was this year. The Falcons can hang with Eisenhower’s speed and quickness and their defensive pressure has grinded down great offenses like Eisenhower’s this season. Heights’ offense has sputtered at times this season, and that is its greatest concern entering Wednesday, but there’s no question that the Falcons will give Eisenhower all that it wants. That’s definitely the matchup that has me the most intrigued, and I think it should be a great game. I’m curious to see how guard Trevon Evans will handle the pressure, and I know Eisenhower, which plays a City League brand of basketball, is excited for its shot at one of the City’s best.
Looking at the other three matchups, I don’t really see much room for an upset. Yes, Aquinas can compete in the half-court but I just don’t see enough offensive firepower to hang with Lansing. I’m not sure Salina Central is disciplined enough to keep up with Hays’ efficiency, although Hays did have to hang on just to win 51-50 on the road at Central on Feb. 11. So that proves the Mustangs are capable, but I think Hays is probably the best equipped team in the field to handle an off-shooting night. Also, who covers 6-foot-7 junior Brady Werth? He might be the most valuable player in this field. I don’t really know what to make of KC Washington, which hasn’t beat a winning team all season. I know they’re wildly athletic and can score some points, but Highland Park is better at both of those things.
There are so many quality players in this field. You have dynamic scorers that could go off for 30 in Eisenhower’s Trevon Evans, Washington’s Jeremee Bennett, and Hi Park’s Shaffee Carr and Jahmal McMurray; you have great point guard in Lansing’s Joe Schneider; you have one of the most skilled big men in Kansas in Hays’ Brady Werth. It’s going to be a great tournament, and I can’t wait to watch this thing unfold. But before I let you go, I have to make my picks first with a short explanation. In order of how they would be played, here we go:
Lansing over Aquinas (QF). I think Aquinas sticks around early, maybe even for the first half but Lansing will be too tough to keep out of the open court for much longer. The Lions win this one going away: Lansing 62, Aquinas 43.
Eisenhower over Heights (QF). I do think Heights will have success in slowing Eisenhower’s attack down with possibly a 2-3 zone. But the Tigers have the shooters and scorers to foil those plans, and I can’t see the Falcons winning a game that gets into the 60′s. It’s a tough one, but Eisenhower grinds this one out: Eisenhower 67, Heights 58.
Hays over Salina Central (QF). Central seems to get up for the big games, and this one certainly qualifies. I see another half-court affair unfolding here, this time away from SC’s home court. Hays is just too solid everywhere and can absorb an off-night of shooting, which will plague teams on the first day at state. It will be close through 3, but I think Hays is just too motivated now that its this close to its goal: Hays 58, Salina Central 50.
Highland Park over Washington (QF). I think Washington will make the mistake of trying to run with Hi Park, and spoiler alert, that’s not going to favor very many teams in the state of Kansas. It should be a wildly entertaining game, as I think we’ll see a shootout of sorts develop between Jeremee Bennett and Jahmal McMurray, but Highland Park will win this one: Highland Park 78, KC Washington 61.
Eisenhower over Lansing (SF). Last season the Lions made it to the state title game largely because of the freak athlete that was Roy Clayter. He’s gone now, so can Lansing pack enough punch to hang with a team like Eisenhower? I don’t think so. Eisenhower is too deep, too talented, and too motivated behind a large senior class. The Tigers are on a mission: Eisenhower 74, Lansing 62.
Highland Park over Hays (SF). This was one of the toughest games to pick. Hays is so solid everywhere and I really do believe that Brady Werth will be a serious problem for every opponent in the post. I love Kyler Niernberger’s game as the point and Hays has no apparent weaknesses. But Highland Park is just that good, even better than Wichita East, I think. It will be a similar match-up for Hays, one in which it did come out victorious in January. I’m not very confident in this pick, but I just think Highland Park is too talented for any team to stop this year: Highland Park 63, Hays 60.
Highland Park over Eisenhower (Finals). It kills me to make this pick because I really am a fan of Eisenhower and the work that those seniors have put in over their four years. If this match-up plays out, then it will be, mark my words, the most entertaining game the state will see this season. It would have everything: highlight-reel dunks, outside shooting, premier scorers, good big men, great chemistry. I would pay a good amount of money to see this game and if it happens, I would hope you would too. Again, I’ve just heard too many good things about this HiPark team from coaches. I hope I’m wrong, but I have to go with what I’m hearing: Highland Park 68, Eisenhower 64.