In ‘one-and-out’ world, is this Scott County’s year?
Scott County has gotten about as much of a chip on its shoulder as a boys’ basketball team that’s perennially in the mix for a state title can have.
The Cardinals lost to 2016 state champion Paul Laurence Dunbar in the finals of the 11th Region Tournament that season. They fell to Bowling Green, the 2017 state champ, in the quarterfinals of the Sweet Sixteen that year. Covington Catholic last season defeated Scott County for its first state championship, blocking the Cardinals from what would have been their third.
That trend suggests that this season is the one that’ll finally end with scissors on the Rupp Arena floor.
“That don’t automatically punch you a ticket to the finals, but it does get you expectations,” said Cardinals Coach Billy Hicks. “In Kentucky there’s always at least 10, 15 or 20 teams that can beat anybody on a given night. Maybe they couldn’t beat ’em six out of seven or five out of seven, but on a given night?”
Hicks has been on the underdog side of those odds.
“In 1998, if we’d played Lexington Catholic 20 times, we might’ve beat ’em once, but that one time was in the semifinals of the state that year,” Hicks said, referencing a game wherein his team scored 11 points in the final 36 seconds and beat the nationally-ranked Knights on a three-pointer at the horn. “That makes basketball what basketball is. I’d really like our chances if it was a seven-game series, but it’s one and out.”
No team in the commonwealth returns as much experienced talent as do the Cardinals, who will start four of the same players who started in last year’s title game and played a big role in Scott County finishing 37-2. Leading the charge is Michael Moreno, a 6foot-6 Mr. Basketball contender who’s on pace to eclipse 3,000 career points and 1,100 rebounds. The senior has not yet committed to a college program but has offers from several midmajors
Bryce Long and Diablo Stewart join Moreno as returning starters. Covington, a football star, is one of the best defensive guards in the state. Long and Stewart should both average double-figure scoring this season; Long was less than a point away last year (9.2 ppg) and Stewart was third on the team at 11.7 (he also shot 42.6 percent from three-point range).
“This is a good group of kids,” Hicks said. “And they haven’t rested on their laurels. We’ve really worked hard, getting ready for this year.”
If members of that foursome — plus Lorenzo Williams and Cam Fluker, other key returnees who played in the finals loss — were scarred by Covington Catholic, they haven’t acknowledged it.
“Kids are very resolute, they’ve got a great way of putting things out of their mind and stuff like that,” Hicks said. “But, also deep inside ‘em, I think they’d like another shot at it.
“But there’s 17 other teams in the region that want a shot at it too.”
THE NEXT FOUR Last season’s record in parentheses
2. Henry Clay (18-12): The Blue Devils have missed two straight region tournaments but are expected to return to Richmond in 2019. Seniors Keaston Brown and Harris Hawkins and junior Marques Warrick will see that those expectations are met.
3. Madison Central (25-8): Talk about differing opinions — the Indians were pegged as the state’s fifth-best team but picked third in the 11th Region by its coaches. That could be due to Central graduating four of its five starters.
4. Lexington Catholic (18-10): Luke Johnson — the latest in a family of LexCath sharpshooters — might be the most explosive of the bunch, and he’s just a sophomore. Luke Vaughn, a 6-foot-7 senior who’s going to play football at Miami (Ohio), is an intriguing newcomer.
5. Lafayette (21-10): The Generals pushed Scott County to the brink in a regular-season meeting before a rematch that got out of hand in the region semifinals. A host of returnees should keep them in the thick of the 43rd District race.
TOP 11 PLAYERS (In alphabetical order)
Keaston Brown, Henry Clay (Sr.): His sophomore season was trimmed due to a shoulder injury but Brown bounced back last year, averaging 13 points and 2.9 rebounds while playing every game for the Blue Devils. Campbellsville and Tusculum University have offered him.
Isaiah Cozart, Madison Central (Sr.): WKU’s latest in-state commit should set the state’s career record for blocked shots in the Indians’ first week of play, if not their first game. He already owns records for the second- and third-most blocks in a single season.
Brandon Cromwell, Woodford County (Sr.): The 6-foot-1 guard averaged 16.6 points and 5.6 rebounds last season.
He’s entering his third season as a starter for the Yellow Jackets, who last year reached the 11th Region Tournament after missing it in Ryan Wilson’s first year as head coach.
Jared Gadd, Paul Laurence Dunbar (Sr.): An influx of transfers could help Dunbar shake things up in the 11th Region but Gadd’s experience is invaluable; he’s been a significant contributor since the Bulldogs’ state-title run in 2016 and averaged 9.3 ppg last season.
Ben Johnson, Lexington Catholic (So.): His scoring average was somewhat deceiving at 11.3 ppg, as Johnson is
The frontrunner for the 11th Region’s Mr. Basketball nomination has played in back-to-back state tournaments and is a good bet to be a member of the 3,000-point/1,100-rebound club by year’s end.
Kyle Rode, Lexington Christian Academy (Sr.): If the 11th Region awards co-Players of the Year this season, it would likely be Rode sitting at the Mr. Basketball banquet with Moreno, with whom he plays AAU ball. He led LCA to its first All “A” Classic state championship last season.
Diablo Stewart, Scott County (Sr.): He settled in after transferring from Franklin County and provided a spark for a team already ripe with firepower. Stewart shot 42.6 percent from long range and led the team in free-throwing shooting (82.4 percent).
Kyle Stivers, Franklin County (Sr.): Stivers led the Flyers in scoring last season (13.6 ppg) and will look to get them back to the 11th Region Tournament after a brief absence.
Jonathan Tillman, Frankfort (Sr.): The 6-foot-6 forward (16.9 points, 10.8 rebounds last year) led Frankfort to the last two 11th Region Tournaments; before that the Panthers hadn’t played in that event since 2007. They’ve not made three consecutive appearances since making six straight trips from 2000-2005.
Marques Warrick, Henry Clay (Jr.): A second-team All-City selection as a sophomore, Warrick was lethal from behind the three-point line last season (45.8 percent) and also led the Blue Devils in free-throw percentage (82.9) on his way to a team-high 16.1 ppg. Several mid-major schools have expressed interest.
NO TEAM IN THE COMMONWEALTH RETURNS AS MUCH EXPERIENCED TALENT AS DO THE CARDINALS, WHO WILL START FOUR OF THE SAME PLAYERS WHO STARTED IN LAST YEAR’S TITLE GAME AND PLAYED A BIG ROLE IN SCOTT COUNTY FINISHING 37-2
LCA’s Kyle Rode (22) and Frankfort’s John Tillman (44) are among the top players in the 11th Region this season.