During a season when the favorite seems to change each week, this year’s 13th Region Tournament at The Arena in Corbin promises to be one of the most exciting, and unpredictable, in recent memory.
Clay County, Jackson County, Knox Central and Bell County have taken turns as the flavor of the week and those four still appear to be the favorites despite going through some ups and downs during the course of the season. Several other teams have shown flashes of potential and could be dangerous in the regional, even though it’s hard to say which teams will even make it there. The second group is led by South Laurel, Corbin and North Laurel and also includes Harlan County, Barbourville, Harlan and Whitley County. Teams like Middlesboro, Pineville, Williamsburg and Oneida Baptist have losing records but have enough talent to be dangerous if they could get hot in the next two weeks.
Knox Central was my pick for 2014 in my poll to conclude the 2013 season with a talented backcourt of Matthew Barger, Jeffrey Adams, Dustin Hensley and Nathan Cole, all juniors, teaming with perhaps the best big man in the region, 6-5 sophomore Chad Marsee. The Panthers started slow but reeled off wins over Clay County, Bell County, Corbin and South Laurel in late January and look like a team that will be tough to beat.
Clay County has the big game experience after winning last year and features one of the state’s top point guards in Tyler McDaniel. Jake Allen, a 6-8 senior, also has big-game experience after starring on North Laurel’s championship team in 2012. The Tigers have several talented sophomores in key roles, including guard Blake Smith and forwards Wes Wolfe and Trey Farmer, the son of former Mr. Basketball Richie Farmer.
Jackson County was the pick of a lot of basketball observers during a seven-game winning streak in January. The Generals feature a Division I point guard in Jordan Fox, a versatile big man in Isaiah Collier and several good shooters.
Bell County is a senior-dominated squad featuring two of the region’s best shooters in Tyler Potter and Jake Patterson. The Bobcats were hot in January with wins over Clay County, Corbin and North Laurel, but have struggled of late with back-to-back losses to South Laurel and Harlan County.
South Laurel and Corbin are the co-favorites in the 50th District and like several other teams in the region have been up and down most of the season. Both appear to be on the upswing at this point, even though neither has the balance you’d like to win a regional championship. Both teams feature one outstanding scorer and one young star with South Laurel led by junior Zac Baxter and freshman Jared Grubb while Corbin counters with senior Kevin Goins and eighth grader Andrew Taylor.
Whitley County was the feel-good story for much of the year with Jerry Overbay becoming the early favorite as coach of the year as Whitley collected wins over regional contenders such as Bell County, Corbin and North Laurel. The Colonels lost three starters to graduation, and the two who were returning were both dismissed from the team early in the year. Whitley may have peaked early though with a 24-point loss to Knox Central and a 28-point loss to Corbin in back-to-back games earlier this month.
Williamsburg was the preseason favorite in the 50th but has been no match for the regional favorites and appears headed for an early exit with a first-round matchup against South Laurel in the district tournament.
Harlan County has only three varsity players still with the team from last year’s regional runner-up team and all are juniors playing important roles in the Bears’ recent run. Forward Zach Caldwell hit the game-winning free throws in wins over Harlan and Oneida Baptist and is among the region’s most physical players with the ability to shoot from the perimeter. Cody Bumgardner is one of the region’s quickest players as the HCHS point guard, and Trey Sanders is capable of providing a scoring threat at guard with his ability to penetrate and shoot. Forward Scotty Bailey, the Bears’ only senior, has provided great leadership, as well as rebounding and defense. Two of the region’s top freshmen, Cameron Carmical and Treyce Spurlock, moved into the starting lineup at midseason and have started to develop into consistent threats.
Barbourville features a senior-dominated lineup led by wing Alexander Phipps, center Jason Miller and point guard Tanner Moore and will be favored to come out of the 51st District, along with Knox Central
North Laurel, stuck in the same district with Clay County and Jackson County, features both experience and youth with seniors Austin Thompson, Chris Miller and Elijah Jervis joined by freshmen Peyton Broughton and Bryson Asher, a 6-7 center. The Jaguars have been a regional tournament regular and have some impressive wins this season despite losing four starters from last year’s team but will have to knock off Clay or Jackson to make it back.
Harlan also has an interesting mix on its roster. The backcourt is young with sophomores Drew Parks and Caleb Hogue and freshman Noah Busroe. The Dragons have experience inside with 6-7 senior Aaron Simpson and 6-5 junior Aaron Simpson starting and seniors Leighton Piper and Manny Davis and junior Jordan Dupar coming off the bench.
Middlesboro has been a disappointment for much of the season despite featuring two of the region’s top players in guard Donnie Foister and forward Austin Poindexter. The Jackets have played much better lately with a one-point loss to Bell County and a blowout win over Harlan County and will have the homecourt advantage in the 52nd District Tournament.
My top 10 going into the final week of the regular season includes:
1. Knox Central
2. Clay County
3. Jackson County
4. Bell County
5. South Laurel
7. North Laurel
8. Harlan County