We’re a little more than a month into the Kentucky high school basketball season, which means we’re a little more than a month away from postseason hysteria.
Here are five observations from the midway point to prepare you as district play ramps up for many teams across the commonwealth:
1. They are (mostly) who we thought they were
The preseason top 10 boys’ teams — Scott County, Trinity, Covington Catholic, Fern Creek, Ballard, Lexington Christian, Cooper, Hopkinsville, Pleasure Ridge Park and Clark County — have combined to go 95-30 through Tuesday.
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That’s a win percentage of 76, and it swells up to 84.1 percent (53-10) if you reduce it to only the teams ranked in the top five coming into the year. That includes two one-loss teams in Scott County, whose only loss was to Cincinnati Moeller in South Carolina, and Trinity, which fell to Fern Creek (11-3) in the King of the Bluegrass championship game. Covington Catholic (10-3) defeated Moeller but also lost to Fern Creek in addition to Cooper and Leesburg, Fla. Ballard’s only losses were to Covington Catholic and Scott County.
Lexington Christian’s 6-6 start is in part attributable to the absence of star junior Kyle Rode during the first part of its season. Likewise, the anticipated absences of Shorty Cager and Jalen Johnson have Hopkinsville at 4-6.
Cooper (12-2) is off to a similar start to last season, when it went 31-5 and reached the Sweet Sixteen finals. PRP (10-3) started its season with a loss to Sixth Region rival Fern Creek and also dropped an in-state game to Valley. Clark County (10-3) lost to Campbell County, which looks to be the 10th Region frontrunner, but otherwise has handled its business in the region.
2. The Ninth Region has a tough decision ahead
Two of the state’s top boys’ teams — Cooper and Covington Catholic — are in the Ninth Region, and should be favored to meet for the region title as they did last March. They each boast a prospective Mr. Basketball candidate — Iowa signee C.J. Fredrick for CovCath and Belmont signee Adam Kunkel for Cooper.
The teams were scheduled to meet just once in the regular season — at NKU’s Bank of Kentucky Center on Jan. 12 — but ended up clashing in the King of the Bluegrass consolation bracket (a 62-59 win for Cooper). It will be the last head-to-head meeting between the squads before Mr. and Miss Basketball balloting, which begins before regional tournaments do.
Should the Jaguars prevail, it would be their third straight victory over the Colonels and give Kunkel a 4-2 career record against CovCath heading into the postseason. A dominating performance by Fredrick and a convincing CovCath win would leave a strong impression in the minds of voters come March.
Since 2015, players must have been named player of the year within their region to be considered a Mr. or Miss Basketball candidate. Regional co-players of the year have been named in the past (in some cases up to three players have taken player of the year titles), but such a scenario could be costly in the Ninth Region this year; splitting northern Kentucky votes would do neither candidacy any good in a season where the award doesn’t appear to have a clear frontrunner.
When the time comes, the number of Mr. Basketball candidates entered by the Ninth Region very well could decide whether it gets to claim its third winner of the award.
3. Unexpected undefeated
The Butler girls’ basketball program is tied with Ashland Blazer and Laurel County (no longer in existence) with five state championships, the most in girls’ state history. The Butler girls, ranked fifth in the preseason, are 11-1 and in the unusual situation of having the second-best record inside the school walls.
The boys are 13-0 and Kentucky’s last remaining unbeaten basketball team regardless of gender. Their schedule so far hasn’t featured a team in the Herald-Leader’s top 25 preseason rankings, but the Bears are 6-0 against Louisville teams, including Male and St. Xavier (21st in the Courier-Journal’s preseason rankings).
Butler needs just three more wins to match its 16 wins from last season. A 22nd District date at DeSales — to whom the Bears have lost three straight and in seven of the last eight meetings — is up Friday, followed by a neutral-site affair with North Oldham on Saturday. The Bears will again play St. Xavier on Tuesday, this time in the first round of the Republic Bank Louisville Invitational Tournament. How they fare there, as well as in a home game against Fern Creek on Jan. 16, will go a long way toward proving their legitimacy as Sixth Region contenders.
4. North side surprise
Bryan Station was nowhere near the boys’ preseason top 25 and was picked as the seventh-best team in the 11th Region. The Defenders have defeated three of the teams ranked ahead of them — Madison Central, Henry Clay and Lafayette — and are 13-1 with an undefeated mark against Kentucky foes. As it stands now, one of the state’s best feel-good stories of the season is being written in Lexington’s north end.
After opening its season at home Nov. 28, Station didn’t play in its gym until Tuesday, when it kicked off a six-game home stand with an 81-66 win over Lafayette. The penultimate matchup in that stretch is against Scott County on Jan. 13, a Saturday night. They’ll make the return trip on Jan. 30; if the Defenders are to keep the positive vibes around their program going they’ll probably need to at least split those matchups.
5. No mercy from Mercer
Since dropping its season opener to Riverdale (Tenn.), Mercer County’s girls have won 14 straight and shown no more signs of hangover from their 2017 state championship.
The Titans’ win streak includes victories over preseason No. 2 Sacred Heart (8-4) and No. 12 Campbell County (15-1), and those were the only games against Kentucky competition decided by single digits. Mercer County’s average margin of victory this season has been 22.2 points, a tick better than its final margin last season (21.2).
There’s a lot of season left, but at this juncture it’d be difficult to not pick the Titans to repeat (or to pick against star senior Seygan Robins, a Louisville signee, in the Miss Basketball race) — just as it was difficult to not pick them in the preseason.