Rockcastle County was a surprise winner earlier this month after losing four starters from the previous team. The one thing the Rockets did have coming into the season was a top-flight point guard, all-stater Aaron Cash.
Cash took over in the tournament, just like he did two years earlier when the Rockets swept through a tough field to win the school's first-ever regional title. While Colby Brown, Blake Roberts and Devin Taylor all played important supporting roles this year, it was Cash who controlled the game and got the ball to his teammates in positions where they could succeed.
The championship game came down to the two top point guards in the region and Cash outplayed Knox Central's Kris Mills, who hit only five of 19 shots.
Last year's title game also matched the top two point guards, but it was Cumberland's Eddie Creech who made all the big plays. Creech's shift to point guard late in the regular season was the catalyst for Cumberland's impressive tournament run and eventual title as he controlled the tempo beautifully and made countless clutch shots whenever Rockcastle appeared ready to take control in the finals.
The point guard theory has been in effect for a number of years, including 2001, when Angelo Smith played his best basketball as a sophomore in leading the Tigers past Cawood and Bell County in the regional tournament at Cawood. Smith wasn't as consistent as a junior and senior, and the Tigers fell to Rockcastle County and Cash in 2002 and Bell County and Jeremy Sanders in 2003.
If the theory holds true next year it's certainly good news for Rockcastle County and Cash, but there will be at least five teams with a legitimate shot at the title. But you can be sure that solid play from the point will be crucial if anyone hopes to knock off the Rockets in 2005 when the regional tournament returns to Harlan County.
The following is my annual look back at the season that has just ended and a look ahead to next year.
G Aaron Cash, Rockcastle County
G David Vance, Barbourville
G Blake Hubbs, Cawood
F Stephen Gabbard, Jackson County
C Rodney Mitchell, Clay County
G Kris Mills, Knox Central
G Stuart Miller, Middlesboro
G Larry Helton, Bell County
F Chaz Bargo, Knox Central
C Kevin McIlquham, Cumberland
G Jeremy Sanders, Bell County
G Shawn Ely, Cawood
G Brian Griffin, Clay County
F Jordan Noble, Corbin
C Dustin Cowan, Middlesboro
G John Smith, Harlan
G Jeremy Brock, Corbin
G Frank Middleton, Evarts
F Ryan Whitaker, Bell County
C Andrew Brock, Cawood
Aaron Cash, Rockcastle County
Blake Hubbs, Cawood
Rodney Mitchell, Clay County
Kevin McIlquham, Cumberland
Larry Helton, Bell County
Stuart Miller, Middlesboro
Colby Brown, Rockcastle County
Jeremy Sanders, Bell County
William Jones, Clay County
Patrick Elliott, Jackson County
Ryan Whitaker, Bell County
John Smith, Harlan
Josh Hamlin, Corbin
Nathan Tanner, Lynn Camp
Ryan Farmer and Kyle Hatfield (tie), Cawood
Coach of the Year
Rockcastle County's Clayton Cash surprised even himself this year with the Rockets' second regional title in three years. Rockcastle was probably the most improved team from the start of the season to the end and played its best when it counted most in the regional tournament.
Knox Central's Brandon Elam was a close second, getting the Panthers to the finals despite losing four of the top six from last year's squad. Knox Central has also ended Corbin's domination of the 50th District, which is no small task.
2004-05 predictions (players are listed by their grade for the 2005 season)
1. Rockcastle County With Aaron Cash (24.1 points per game), the Rockets have one of the top points guards in the state, making them extremely tough to beat in the close games that are the norm in tournament play.
Cash is not a one-man show as junior wing Colby Brown (12.5) is one of the region's best shooters and 6-4 senior center Blake Roberts (9.5) is one of the better post players. Losing the defense and ball-handling of Devin Taylor could hurt because the Rockets don't have a lot of experience at guard besides Cash and Brown.
J.C. McClure (2.7), a 6-2 junior forward, was a starter for the Rockets late in the season. Kyle Mullins (3.2) and Weston Riddle (1.8), both 6-1 junior forwards, will also compete for a starting job, as will Derrick Hurst (2.6), a 5-9 senior guard.
2. Clay County You can't compile a list of favorites for the 13th Region without including the Tigers, who fell in the semifinals despite being favored most of the season.
Clay loses four seniors, including wing Brian Griffin and point guard Brian Sizemore. Griffin was named player of the year by the coaches association but he disappeared down the stretch for the Tigers and won't be as big a loss as it might appear.
The Tigers feature the region's top post tandem with 6-7 senior Rodney Mitchell (18.8) and 6-3 junior William Jones (11.4) but have some questions in the backcourt.
Senior wing Trey Bowling (3.6) will need to become more than a 3-point threat if Clay is to reach its potential. Senior James Patterson (7.7) will probably take over at the point, but could move to a wing if junior Anthony Hibbard (1.1) wins the job. Junior forwards Dylan Sizemore (1.5) and Desmond Swafford (2.7) could also break into the starting lineup.
3. Corbin A loss to Barbourville in the district tournament was a disappointing end to a better-than-expected performance in the regular season for a squad that had been wiped out by graduation.
The Hounds should be even better next year despite losing three guards to graduation as most of their top players are back including senior forward Jordan Noble (14.4), senior guard Jeremy Brock (13.6) and 6-3 senior center Andrew Parks (9.3).
Junior Ryan Tate (2.8) is the early favorite to take over at point guard. Senior Brad Lawson (3.3), a football standout, could also start but may be better suited in the reserve role he played last season. Senior center Isaac Mills (2.5), junior forward Cody Dixon (1.0) and junior center Ryan Swim are also in the picture as Corbin will again feature one of the region's deepest squads.
4. Cawood An impressive January and February, when the Trojans may have been the region's best team, were overshadowed by an ugly March. Cawood struggled in wins over Harlan and Cumberland, then was outplayed and outhustled by Rockcastle County in the regional tournament.
The Trojans could be one of the state's top 20 teams with a senior-dominated squad if they continue the improvement they made last season, but will have to show a lot more heart to avoid another early exit.
Cawood features one of the state's top players in senior Blake Hubbs (26.6), a two-time all-state selection, but the supporting cast is the key to the Trojans' success. Senior Shawn Ely (16.4) and junior Derrick Watkins (7.9) need more consistency to give Cawood the top backcourt in the region.
Andrew Brock (6.4), a 6-4 senior center, is a solid rebounder and probably the best shot blocker in school history but has room for improvement on offense. Senior forward Travis Clem (7.2) is also a good rebounder and defender. Junior Billydean Shelton (1.8) and senior Aaron Stephens (1.4) are the top reserves in the post. Junior Joe Brock (1.4) could be one of the region's top shooters off the bench.
5. Bell County The Bobcats will feature one of the region's top backcourts with junior Jeremy Sanders (10.1), seniors Larry Helton (16.2) and Brian Wagner (10.3) and sophomore Ryan Whitaker (8.1) returning.
Whitaker may have to move inside due to the Bobcats' lack of experience after the graduation of Jordan Marcum, Jeremiah Gibson, Trey Harbin and Jeremy Abner. Sophomores Brent Slusher and Jordan Turner will also compete for starting jobs in the post. Junior Steven Hunter (3.5) will see action at guard.
6. Jackson County A 12-16 mark was a big disappointment for the Generals after being ranked fourth in the region coming into the season.
The loss of Stephen Gabbard would appear to make it difficult for Jackson to compete in the tough 49th District, but the Generals still have plenty of talent. Patrick Elliott (12.0), a 6-7 junior, is back at center. Andrew Chrisman (9.4), a 6-3 senior, and Walt Rader (6.9), a 6-0 senior, return at the forwards.
Junior Troy Truett (3.2) is the Generals' most experienced guard returning, unless junior James McCowan (8.7), who quit the team last year, returns. Freshman standout Nick Brumback (2.7) could also be difficult to keep out of the starting lineup.
7. Barbourville Losing David Vance was a huge blow for the Tigers, who probably missed their best chance to compete for a regional title.
The Tigers will still be competitive, though, with junior Matthew Cox (7.0) taking over for Vance at the point and 6-5 senior Chris Jackson (12.1) returning at center. Casey Smith (2.1), a 6-1 senior, is back at forward. Aaron Grubb (3.4) and Chris Good (2.3), both 6-3 junior forwards, and 6-4 junior Travis Crawford (1.9) will also compete for starting jobs.
8. Knox Central Kris Mills and Chaz Bargo gave the Panthers a potent 1-2 combination that will be difficult to replace, but Brandon Elam did wonders with a 2004 squad that lost four key players.
Junior Marcus McKeehan (9.8), a good spot-up shooter last season, will have to become more of an overall threat if the Panthers are to defend their district championship. Senior guards Doug Cobb (4.6) and Nick Jordan (4.0) also return to the backcourt after serving as part-time starters last year. Senior Lyde Engle (5.4) is back in the post where he will be counted on to take up the slack on the boards, where Bargo often dominated. Junior guard Josh Gray (2.0) could also compete for a starting job as the only other player returning who averaged over a point a game.
9. Whitley County Much like Jackson, Whitley failed to live up to expectations after entering the season as the favorite in the 50th District.
Michael Petrey and Matt Anderson are gone after three years as starters, but both had disappointing senior campaigns. Senior guard Jeremy Taylor (14.7) was the most pleasant surprise for the Colonels last year as he led the team in scoring.
Junior Joe Siler (8.1), one of the region's top ball-handlers, is back at point where he will be counted on to become more of a scoring threat. Seniors Sammy Wilson (7.6), a guard, Travis Raper (4.5), a 6-1 forward, and James Morgan (4.2), a 6-4 center, also return.
10. Harlan With four starters back, the Dragons could be on the verge of again joining the regional race after four straight losing seasons.
Sophomore John Smith (17.6) and junior Ryan Clem (14.9) would benefit most by a healthy season from 6-5 senior center Seth Haywood (6.2), who was limited to only six games due to a broken wrist.
Junior forward Stephen Brown (5.7) demonstrated flashes of outstanding play last year, but much like Smith and Clem, could use some added weight and strength to compete with some of the more physical players in the 13th Region. Jon Brown (3.9), a 6-2 senior, could regain his starting job in the post or coach Casey Lester could go with a three-guard lineup that includes junior Casey Huff (4.1).
Best of the rest Oneida Baptist, Evarts, Middlesboro, Lynn Camp, Cumberland, Williamsburg, Red Bird and Pineville.