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The KHSAA Boys’ Sweet 16 Basketball Tournament has become a carousel lately without a repeat champion since Louisville Fairdale won back-to-back titles in 1990 and ’91. That streak will continue another year with defending champion Louisville Trinity’s loss in the 7th Region final.
Losses by top-ranked Trinity and No. 2 Bullitt East give every team new hope. Each and every team realizes it can accomplish its season-long quest with four more wins, starting today at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
Since 1992, only two schools have won multiple championships. Mason County did it in 2003 and ’08, while Scott County won championships 1998 and 2007. Of the 21 schools during that span to win a title, only three – Louisville Ballard (1999), Warren Central (2004) and Holmes (2009) – are in this year’s field.
For the rest of the field, this could be its season to take home a championship. John Hardin, which has put together a 20-game winning streak entering Thursday’s game against Fleming County, falls into that category.
The Bulldogs believe last year’s state tournament experience when they reached the quarterfinals could help them this season. John Hardin is one of only four teams making a return trip, joining Hopkinsville, Johnson Central and Knott County Central.
“I think that experience could be a very good advantage,” John Hardin senior forward Daveon Greene said. “I was checking the bracket and there are only a few teams that made it back. Keon (Williams) might have said it best the other day. He said, ‘We’re not going as tourists this year.’”
John Hardin senior point guard Brandon Price used Williams’ analogy. The Bulldogs made school history last year, winning their first state tournament game in their second trip, but they hope the third time is the charm.
“Last year we were like tourists there,” Price said. “I don’t want to say we settled, but we were satisfied with getting there. This year, that’s not the case. We’re focused. Our focus is we want to win a state title.”
A 5th Region team hasn’t won a state championship since Elizabethtown accomplished the feat in 2000. John Hardin, though, could end the region’s long drought.
The Bulldogs have the pieces to make a deep run. They have veterans like Price, Greene and Williams, who started last season. Sophomore guard Elijah Smith saw plenty of action off the bench.
John Hardin has plenty of offensive firepower with four players – Price, Greene, Williams and junior guard Patrick Anderson – averaging more than 10 points a game. The Bulldogs can score inside with Greene or with their guards attacking the basket or from the outside.
Their defense has been a strength the entire season, limiting opponents to 55.2 points a game. The Bulldogs rely on their different full-court presses to wear teams down.
“We know the blueprint for success,” Williams said. “We’ve had our ups and downs this season. We’ve had hard times. But everyone has figured out their role and we’ve come together. We’re playing as a team right now. That’s the most important thing.”
The state field is loaded with teams like that. Ballard (29-4) is the highest ranked team in the field after defeating Trinity, 57-46 in the 7th Region final.
Madison Central (28-5) figures to be one of the other pre-tournament favorites after winning the difficult 11th Region.
“Everybody in Rupp better be ready because they’ve got to be one of the favorites, if not the favorite,” Lexington Catholic coach Brandon Salsman told the Lexington Herald Leader.
Other top teams in the field include Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park (25-7), Montgomery County (31-4), Hopkinsville (31-4) and Holmes (31-2), which is coached by former North Hardin player and assistant Jason Booher.
John Hardin coach Mark Wells isn’t concerned with talk about which teams are the favorite or anything else except the Bulldogs’ first-round opponent – Fleming County. Wells has been pleased with how the Bulldogs have handled the pressure to get back to the state tournament and now they have an opportunity at a championship.
“I think it’s our experience and maturity,” Wells said. “We have a lot of veterans like Brandon and Daveon. I think our experience was a big factor in the region tournament. We also talk a lot about mental toughness. They heard those speeches a lot. I think we’ve shown a lot mental toughness.
“I hope our experience (from last year) helps a lot, but you never know until the lights come on and you run out of the tunnel,” he added. “I hope we can come out the gates well.”
Chuck Jonescan be reached at (270) 505-1759 or email@example.com