Friday, December 22, 2006

SPORTS >> Tough division not looking any weaker in 2007

Leader sports editor

Basketball season is in full swing, but for the larger schools, the part of the season that really counts is just approaching. The state’s top three classifications don’t start conference play until January, and this year’s league races are very interesting for the six local teams that play in those leagues.The most interesting, and most ridiculously brutal is the 6A-East, which includes Jack-sonville, Sylvan Hills and Searcy. Along with those teams is Jonesboro, For-rest City, West Memphis, Mountain Home and newcomer Marion.

Marion took Cabot’s place after the Panthers were moved to the new 7A-Central. The other two teams are Beebe and North Pulaski, who are conference mates in the 5A-East. The 6A-East is a league that no one in the 6A-South wants to be a part of. As a matter of opinion, no one in either 7A classification would, or at least should, want to be a part of it. It’s murderous.
There are at least five teams in that conference that would have a legitimate shot at winning any of the other four conference championships in the top two classifications.

That number could be six, but little is known about Marion at this point. The Patriots have been state title contenders in 5A the past few years, so they are likely pretty good too. The odds-on favorite is clearly Jonesboro. Jonesboro is the defending conference champion and state runner up, and has almost everyone back. The Hurricanes are slicing through everyone so far this year. They have excellent guards, smooth forwards and solid post play. And they have speed and athleticism everywhere.

What they don’t have is three players to have already committed to Division I colleges. Forrest City is that team. The only problem the Mustangs will face in beating Jonesboro is the lack of an inside game. All three players mentioned are in the 6-foot-3, 6-4 range. Forrest City is capable of beating anyone, and is a real threat for a league and state title.Jacksonville slides into the third spot. That is where it finished last year, and now the Red Devils have a full year under the tutelage of Vic Joyner.

They lost their leading scorer and all of their starting guards, and the starting post player from last year is tearing up the junior college ranks. That’s a lot to replace physically, but the mentality on this team is much, much better. This team understands the term “team concept”. It’s very unlikely that any Red Devil is going to finish a single game with 38 points this year, and no one will mind.

The three listed above means that either Searcy or West Memphis will be left out of the playoffs. Imagine that. Either of those teams would challenge for a league title in the other leagues, but one will not be in the playoffs at all. West Memphis struggled this year, but Searcy has come up short too much recently. The Blue Devils missing the postseason two years in a row is unheard of, and improbable. They have already shown they are much better than last year, despite also losing 95 percent of everything. That’s because that 95 percent of everything was one player.

The biggest difference for West Memphis is that it has guards this year. The Blue Devils always have dominant, long forwards, and this year they have guards to go with them. They could slip in and win the whole thing, but last year’s seventh-place finish makes it hard to predict that right now. Searcy could again be the odd man out. The Lions lost one player to a Division I, sweet 16 school, but has a core group of three that have started for three years.

That will be a big plus. The Lions are undersized, but the guards are excellent, and they can all shoot. Pressure is unlikely to bother them much, but big teams will. Sylvan Hills was picked by most, not by the Leader, to finish in about this spot last year. Instead, the Bears advanced to the semifinals of the state playoffs. They lost everyone though. This team is very inexperienced, and that’s something that’s not afforded in a league like this one. As state before, little is known about the Patriots. It’s been overheard that they aren’t quite as good as recent years. Combine that with playing in a much tougher conference, and a playoff spot is unlikely.

Mountain Home has a new coach and a rejuvenated group of players, but also too much inexperience. The 6A-East is so tough, Cabot coach Jerry Bridges has said a number of times since the realignment that he’s not one bit sorry that his team is leaving the league. Instead, he moves to the 7A-Central, where he’ll have to deal with some still very formidable opponents.
The favorite is clearly Little Rock Central. The Tigers are 11-2, with both losses coming to rival Little Rock Hall. However, they are not yet full strength. Central is 11-2 without a single post player. That will change at semester when a very athletic, 6-7 center steps into the rotation. They will only get better.

Pine Bluff should come in second. The Zebras are loaded with tradition, and have a couple of recent championships to prove it. After those two, anyone could get in except Bryant. The Hornets, Catholic and Conway will be the underdogs while Cabot, North Little Rock and Russellville should battle for the final two spots. Don’t count out the others though. Conway has all the physical ingredients, but is very young. The only question surrounding the Wampus Cats is when they will come of age.

The 5A-East should belong to Greene County Tech this year. They have everyone back from a team that was eliminated by one point by the state champion. The Eagles are also chocked full of three-year starters. They have size, athleticism and play a frenetic style that have an opponent buried shortly after the onset. Blytheville is supposed to be down, but down for Blytheville is still usually better than most. Nettleton is solid this year and North Pulaski is vastly improved. Wynne will also be in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Paragould, Beebe and Batesville will probably stay on the outside looking in. Look out for the Badgers in Pioneers in coming years. This league is about to become very competitive. Beebe is too young to get into the playoffs this year, but the young talent could pull it together enough times to shake up the top dogs and make some noise late in the season.