Choosing a winner of the 99th Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Boys Sweet Sixteen is a bit like predicting a “best picture” race from a field including Gone with the Wind, The Godfather and Star Wars. The minute you’ve declared Michael Corleone’s rise to power as the clear frontrunner, the classic charm of Scarlett O’Hara and the special effects in George Lucas’ revolutionary space opera keep you second-guessing.
A mere 3.9 points separate Paul Laurence Dunbar, the top-ranked team in the latest Cantrall ratings, and No. 8 Taylor County. If that doesn’t say enough about how competitive this tournament is likely to be, just examine the head-to-head contest between those two in Campbellsville; the Cardinals won by a point at home thanks in large part to a triple-double by Mr. Basketball finalist Quentin Goodin.
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The Bulldogs have all the pieces to cut down the nets: A sensational leading man in junior Taveion Hollingsworth. A cold-blooded scorer in Mr. Basketball finalist Darius Williams. An underestimated hustler in Jordan Lewis at point guard. A formidable two-way post presence in Dontell Brown. A does-a-little-bit-of-everything “best supporting actor” nominee in Justin Kelley. And the entire show’s happening in their studio lot, an advantage that Coach Scott Chalk doesn’t put much stock in.
“That don’t mean a whole lot in Rupp Arena. It’s pretty big,” Chalk said with a laugh. “You’ve got to have a lot of people to be the hometown favorite.”
It’s wide open and anything can happen. … You just never know. That’s what’s exciting about it. Everybody feels like they have a chance. And we’re no different.
Mike Szabo, Trinity coach
Dunbar’s student section, the “Dawg Pound,” was among the region’s best all season. You can expect it to show up for Dunbar’s opening-round game against one-loss Mercer County, ranked fifth and considered a state contender all season.
The knock on the Titans for most of the season was their relatively weak schedule compared to some of the other presumed contenders, but they did go 4-1 against teams ranked in Cantrall’s top 25 heading into regional play. Mercer’s starting five is as versatile as any in the state, if not the most interchangeable.
By contrast, Dunbar was 13-3 against opponents rated in the final top 25. Trinity fared similarly, going 14-5 against those foes.
“It’s wide open and anything can happen,” Trinity Coach Mike Szabo said. “You just never know. That’s what’s exciting about it. Everybody feels like they have a chance. And we’re no different.”
Taylor County wasn’t even ranked in the final top 25; now it’s one of the many favorites after winning 17 of its past 18 and 11 straight heading to Lexington.
As is Christian County, a state frontrunner all season, which hasn’t dropped a game to Kentucky competition. Its two losses? Both came on the same day, to Illinois teams, with standout junior Jaylen Sebree benched with an illness.
3 The number of first-round games matching two top-10 teams
One need only look to last year’s edition of the tournament to see how volatile it can turn out; none of the top four teams made it to the semifinals. Only two among the top eight — Covington Catholic and eventual champion Owensboro, both absent this year — reached the penultimate round. There’s no reason a team like No. 11 Lawrence County — ultra-athletic and tested against tough competition in the regular-season — can’t go on a run like Boyle County did a year ago.
Or maybe the glory will go to an unexpected favorite like South Laurel. The Cardinals vaulted into the No. 2 spot in the ratings, just ahead of Newport Central Catholic. They were ranked 16th in the state heading into district play. Coach Jeff Davis was shocked to hear that the numbers were so kind to his squad.
“Well that’s nice,” Davis said with a laugh. “I don’t consider us the second-ranked team in the state. You look what Christian County’s done; they’ve not lost a game in Kentucky. … Mercer County and Dunbar, they’ve been right up there. The schedules they played, especially Dunbar in that 11th Region. It’s like murderer’s row. To come out of there is like winning a state tournament in that region.”
A bunch of Golden Globes were handed out last week. Who’s walking away with an Oscar?
1. Paul Laurence Dunbar (29-6), 83.9
2. South Laurel (27-6), 82.1
3. Newport Central Catholic (28-4), 82.0
4. Trinity (29-6), 81.8
5. Mercer County (33-1), 81.3
6. Bowling Green (30-2), 80.6
7. Christian County (29-2), 80.5
8. Taylor County (24-8), 80.3
9. Doss (27-5), 79.7
10. South Oldham (28-5), 77.0
11. Lawrence County (29-4), 74.3
12. Murray (29-5), 73.7
13. Owensboro Catholic (22-9), 71.4
14. Mason County (23-10), 68.4
15. Buckhorn (19-15), 67.6
15. Elliott County (22-7), 67.6