Ballard's Chris Renner has coached in as many state championship games in Rupp Arena as anybody. He led the Bruins to the Sweet Sixteen title in 1999, and to runner-up finishes in 2003, 2007 and 2010. So when Renner talks about what it takes to get a team to the finals, his words are wisdom.
"First of all, you can't win a state title without talent," he said. "Once you get here with that talent, you've got to play with chemistry and tremendous effort, and put four really good games together.
"If you do that, you can win a state championship."
With the 96th KHSAA State Tournament starting in Rupp Arena at noon on Wednesday, 16 teams are dreaming of cutting down the nets on Sunday afternoon.
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Ballard has a good shot at making that a reality and partying like it's 1999.
The Bruins, rated the tournament favorite, are the most talented team in the field. They have three all-state candidates in Quentin Snider, Kelan Martin and Lavonne Holland, who are backed by a strong supporting cast.
Ballard also got a favorable draw in the bottom half of the bracket. It will play Johnson Central, rated 16th in the field, in the first round. If the Bruins win, they will face Knott Central or Clay County in the quarterfinals.
Johnson Central Coach Tommy McKenzie admitted his team is a huge underdog.
"Somebody told me to go down to Rupp and make some noise, and I said, 'Tell me how to beat the Lakers!'"
Renner said nobody in Ballard's camp is taking anything for granted.
"With the experience our coaching staff has, we know what it takes to get to the championship game. It doesn't matter who picks you, what the rankings say, you've got to take it one game at a time and play well to get there."
Madison Central is rated the top team in the upper half of the bracket. The Indians are led by Mr. Basketball finalist Dominique Hawkins and his backcourt running mate, Ken-Jah Bosley.
Madison Central played at a high level all season against a challenging schedule, and that makes Coach Allen Feldhaus confident.
"We've been so consistent all year, I'd be shocked if we got on the big stage and laid an egg," he said. "I like my chances with my seniors."
The upper bracket also includes PRP, which knocked off Bullitt East in the 6th Region final, and Hopkinsville, which is riding a state-best 23-game winning streak.
PRP faces Holmes in a matchup of coaches who've won state titles. Dale Mabrey led PRP to the 1989 championship. Jason Booher took Shelby Valley to the 2010 title before moving on to Holmes.
"I think Madison Central is a big favorite on one side of the bracket, and Ballard on the other," Booher said.
"But upsets happen every year at Rupp, and that's what Holmes, PRP and Montgomery County are shooting for."
Montgomery County, rated third best in the tournament, is led by Mr. Basketball finalist Omar Prewitt and coached by Happy Osborne.
Osborne, who won more than 400 games and an NAIA national title at Georgetown College, is in his first season on the high school level.
John Hardin brings a 20-game winning streak to town, and the experience of having been here last year. The Bulldogs have an interesting matchup with Fleming County. John Hardin senior point guard Brandon Price will go against Panthers' junior point guard Darion Burns.
Graves County Coach Terry Birdsong doesn't buy into the notion that a lot of teams have a chance to win it all.
"A lot of people say there's six or seven teams that can win a tournament like this," he said. "I've never thought that. Ballard is definitely the favorite, but I think Madison Central is right up there, too."
Hopkinsville Coach Tim Haworth likes the Indians, too, because "they've got good guard play, and when you've got good guards, you've got a chance."
Recent history tells us Madison Central and Montgomery County have a chance because they each have a Mr. Basketball finalist. Four of the last five state champs have been led by a player who was named Mr. Basketball a few weeks after the Sweet Sixteen — Nathan Dieudonne of Trinity (2012), Anthony Hickey of Christian County (2011), Elisha Justice of Shelby Valley (2010) and Darius Miller of Mason County (2008).
Six schools in the tournament own state titles: Ballard (1977, '88, '99), Clay County (1987), Holmes (2009), Hopkinsville (1985), PRP (1989) and Warren Central (2004).
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Sweet Sixteen tournament bracket
Pre-season team, player ratings
Game 1 (Noon, Wed.): Wayne Co. vs. Madison Central
Game 2 (1:30 pm, Wed.): Holmes vs. PRP
Game 3 (6:30 pm, Wed.): Graves Co. vs. Ohio Co.
Game 4 (8 pm, Wed.): Hopkinsville vs. South Oldham
Game 5 (Noon, Thu.): Warren Central vs. Montgomery Co.
Game 6 (1:30 pm, Thu.): Fleming Co. vs. John Hardin
Game 7 (6:30 pm, Thu.): Johnson Central vs. Ballard
Game 8 (8 pm, Thu.): Knott Co. Central vs. Clay Co.
Region players and coaches of the year
Past boys' Sweet Sixteen champions