High School Basketball

Race to the trophy hard to handicap

March Madness can lead to March migraines.

That's one of the dangers of over-analyzing basketball brackets, including Kentucky's Sweet Sixteen.

Hoops history tells us that post-season tournaments are a crapshoot, especially when played by teenagers in front of huge crowds.

Unpredictable doesn't begin to cover it.

Remember last year when Louisville Central, barely a .500 team, rode a wave of momentum to the state finals before losing to Holmes in double overtime?

"That just goes to show what happens if a team gets hot," Ballard Coach Chris Renner said. "And any team can get hot for four games."

Still, that doesn't keep people from trying to predict how the 93rd PNC/KHSAA Sweet Sixteen will play out in Rupp Arena this week.

Dave Cantrall rates Scott County, Ballard, Shelby Valley and Christian County as the four best teams, and most coaches agree.

"I think the three big boys are Scott County, Ballard and Christian County," said Shelby Valley Coach Jason Booher.

"Luckily, they're on the other side of the bracket."

In addition to those three, four more of Cantrall's top 10 teams are in the upper half of the draw: No. 5 Warren Central, No. 8 Newport, No. 9 Corbin and No. 10 Shelby County.

"That's one of the toughest brackets I've seen in a while," Scott County Coach Billy Hicks said. "There are probably four or five teams that could come out of there and win the whole thing."

Corbin Coach Tony Pietrowski, whose Redhounds face No.1-rated Scott County in the first round, pointed to the Cardinals and No. 2 Ballard as obvious picks.

"Scott County looks like an NAIA college team," he said. "They're so big, so talented and have so many weapons.

"And I saw Ballard early in the year. They're as athletic and talented as anybody."

Pietrowski knows upsets happen.

"It's inevitable that somebody is going to be in the final eight or the final four that nobody's picking," he said.

"I hope we fall into that category and bust a lot of brackets early."

Hicks knows nothing is guaranteed.

"I don't care who you are or who you play, you never know what's going to happen," he said. "It makes it tough to sleep at night."

Even though Shelby Valley is favored to come out of the bottom bracket, Booher is wary.

"This is my ninth Sweet Sixteen as player, assistant or head coach, and there's always been 16 good teams in it," he said. "I honestly think any of the eight teams in the lower bracket have a chance to get to Saturday."

Shelby Valley figures to have plenty of fans on its side. It's one of the smallest schools in the tournament, and it's trying to become the first mountain team to win the title since Paintsville in 1996.

The Cats won their first Sweet Sixteen game last year when they beat Elliott County. Booher thinks that was a big step forward.

"When I first got to Shelby Valley, the mind-set was if we won the region we'd go make a token appearance in Rupp Arena," he said.

"Finally winning a game there last year was a big monkey off our back. Now we feel like if we go up there and play well, we can win the thing."

Shelby Valley also has Elisha Justice going for it. The Mr. Basketball candidate is capable of carrying his team to a championship.

He's not the only guy with that kind of star power.

Scott County has Chad Jackson, Ge-Lawn Guyn and Dakotah Euton, and Ballard has Ian Chiles and Keiston Jones.

Anthony Hickey is a difference-maker for Christian County, as is Jarrod Polson for West Jessamine.

Warren Central has a pair of junior standouts in George Fant and Jordan Shanklin.

The bottom line, though, is that a team must play well and get a lucky break or two along the way.

Five coaches in this year's tournament can attest to that because they have championship credentials.

Hicks led Scott County to titles in 1999 and 2007. Renner led Ballard to the top in 1999. Dave Fraley, now at Knott Central, won it all at Pulaski County in 1986. Tim Riley of Warren Central cut down the nets in 2004, and Chris O'Hearn of Mason County celebrated in 2008.

Riley said if a team is good enough to win the title, "It doesn't matter what route you have to take in the bracket. A tough draw doesn't matter if your team is strong enough."

But, Riley added with a chuckle, "I'd like to be in Jason Booher's spot."

Hicks said a key to success in the Sweet Sixteen is "keeping your team grounded all week. The farther you go, the stakes get higher and the games get bigger.

"On the court, the biggest thing is you've got to play good defense."

If you're looking for a dark-horse this year, Christian County Coach Kerry Stovall singled out his team's first-round opponent.

"Newport is the only team in this entire field that beat the (defending) state champs, and they beat them by 26," Stovall said, referring to Newport's 60-34 victory over Holmes in the 9th Region finals.

"To me, they've got as much claim as anybody in the tournament."

West Jessamine also deserves notice because it made it the semifinals last year.

How does Colts Coach Damon Kelley see his team's prospects?

"Anything can happen," he said. "We have just as good a chance of playing Saturday night as we do losing on Thursday."

It's enough to give a coach a migraine.

This year's Sweet Sixteen includes six schools that have won state titles: Ballard (1977, 1988, 1999), Corbin (1936), Mason County (2003, 2008), Scott County (1999, 2007), Shelby County (1966, 1978) and Warren Central (2004).