Time to preview the playoffs

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 3, 2006

With the AISA area tournaments tipping off Thursday, the basketball playoffs are now officially upon us. There’s still a number of AHSAA teams playing regular-season games (Francis Marion and Greensboro are scheduled to take the court Feb 7, only two days before tipping off their area tourneys) but there’s no question all eyes are now on the postseason.

To help get you ready, the times published a comprehensive tournament schedule in yesterday’s edition, and today I’ll be giving a quick rundown of what to look for and expect at every area tournament involving a team in the five-county area. For the AHSAA teams I’ll also be looking ahead a bit to the sub-regional level, where each area champion and runner-up will be paired with a second area’s runner-up and champion, respectively, for one game to determine who makes the trip to Mobile for Regionals.

(seeds in parentheses)

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4A Area 5

Teams: Greene County (1), Livingston (2), Demopolis (3), Choctaw County (4), and Thomasville (5).

Sub-Regionals: vs. Area 1 (Escambia County, UMS-Wright, Gulf Shores, Jackson)

Outlook: Is it possible that the state’s No. 5 4A team isn’t even the favorite in its own area tournament any more, even when playing on its own home floor?

Area 5 regular season champions and defending state titlists Greene County has had another excellent season and Howard Crawford and Curtis Nickson have been their usual dominant selves as they prepare to join the UAB Blazers next season. But Livingston has roared back from a rocky start (due, in part, to a tough-as-nails early season schedule) to trounce Demopolis at home Jan. 20 and upset Greene County in Eutaw last Friday by 11, 53-42. It wasn’t enough to overtake the Tigers for the area title (LHS finished with a 6-2 record to GCHS’s 7-1) but with the one-two punch of Jeremy Yates outside and Roland Fitch inside, at the moment it’s the Cougars who are playing the area’s best basketball.

It’s still far from a given that Livingston and Greene County will play for the title, however. Demopolis has endured a season-long struggle to score out of their halfcourt sets, a struggle that hit its low point in the past week as the Tigers scored 34 points against a Choctaw county team they had torched for 86 in the teams’ first meeting. But the Tigers have played the kind of outstanding team defense game-in-game-out that can keep them any game, and if Demopolis gets scoring from both their backcourt (from Dontrell Miller and Willie Blount) and their frontcourt (Casey Cantey and perhaps newcomer Shantrell Braxton) they can play with anyone.

There will be plenty at stake in this area’s championship game, since the runner-up will likely have to defeat 20-5, sixth-ranked Escambia County on the road.

4A Area 6

Teams: Greensboro (1), Dallas County (2), Bibb County (3), Jemison (4).

Sub-Regionals: vs. Area 8 (Chelsea, Montevallo, Holt, Oak Grove)

Outlook: With star junior Ivory White’s dynamic inside-outside game, the rebounding of center Adrian Williams and freshman Demarquelle Tabb, the shooting of Rashad Hobson, and the smart, unselfish play of point guard Michael Wiggins, the Raiders are well-poised to make their second straight trip to Mobile. It will be very difficult for any of their area rivals or potential Area 8 runner-ups (none of which are known for their basketball prowess) to come into Greensboro and defeat the Raiders. But coach Xavian Evans team has also had letdowns at times (losses to John Essex and Sunshine) and cannot afford another one now.

3A Area 6

Teams: Sumter County (1), Francis Marion (2), Aliceville (3), West Blocton (4).

Sub-Regionals: vs. Area 1 (Clarke County, T.R. Miller, W.S. Neal, Straughan)

Outlook: No boys team in the area is a bigger favorite to win their tourney than the No. 1 defending 3A champion Wildcats. With Larry Foster strafing the net from downtown, Patrick Delaine and Cameron Ezell controlling the boards, and Codarro Law back from injury to do a little of everything, there’s a reason Sumter will roll into the postseason with a 20-1 record.

Which, despite Marion and Aliceville both making the Wildcats work for three quarters in their visits to York, means the most interesting battle will be the 2/3 game. The scrappy Francis Marion Rams defeated Aliceville in both meetings during the regular season and will do so again if guards Edward Hinkle and Kevin Curry can get hot from outside. The Rams would still have a lot of work to do to reach Mobile, though: if they failed to pull off the shocker against Sumter, they would very likely have to beat 3A No. 7 Clarke County on the road in their sub-regional game.

2A Area 6

Teams: R.C. Hatch (1), Keith (2), Marbury (3), Billingsley (4).

Sub-Regionals: vs. Area 8 (Altamont, Calera, Holy Family, Shades Mtn. Christian, Vincent)

Outlook: As tremendously good as the No. 2 Bobcats are, and as dominant as they were during the regular season (6-0 in area, 26-3 overall), they will still need to be on top of their game to turn away a dangerous Keith team. Between guard Frankie Sullivan’s All-Everything athleticism, center Calvin Pope’s rebounding, forward Phillip Johnson’s “glue guy” effort, and Homer Davis’s coaching, there’s little chance the Bears will manage it, especially in Uniontown. But Hatch can’t afford with a letdown, not when finishing second could mean a road date with the state’s top-ranked team, Altamont. Things will be hard enough if the Bobcats’ sub-regional is (as is more likely) a home game with 2A defending champ Calera.

1A Area 2

Teams: Coffeeville (1), Linden (2), Sweet Water (3), A.L. Johnson (4) and Marengo (5).

Sub-Regionals: vs. Area 8 (Sunshine, Akron, Carrolton, John Essex, ACA)

Outlook: Linden hasn’t missed a trip to Mobile yet this decade, but if they want to continue that streak they would do very well to win twice in their trip to Coffeeville. In players like point guard Darnell Richardson, sharpshooting Gary Williams, and soft-handed big man Wesley Hodges, the quick and athletic Patriots have the ability to do so. But first they will have to defeat a Sweet Water team that led by steady senior point guard Deon Williams, who quarterbacks his basketball team nearly as well as he did the Bulldog football team.

Next they would very likely face the same Coffeeville squad that handed Linden their only area defeat of the season and will again have a raucous crowd behind them. But that loss (which cost the Patriots homecourt advantage after the Panthers won a coin flip) occurred back on Jan. 5 and both teams will have developed since then. Win that game, and the Patriots would earn a home date with the Area 8 runner-up in which they would likely be heavy favorites.

First-round participants A.L. Johnson and Marengo have talent in the form of players like Michael McGhee and Howard Dunning, respectively. But it will take a tremendous effort to shock Coffeeville in the Panthers’ own gym.

1A Area 8

Teams: Sunshine (1), Akron (2), Carrolton (3), John Essex (4), ACA (5).

Sub-Regionals: vs. Area 2 (see above)

Outlook: Despite their surprising home loss to Carrolton last Friday, Sunshine will still enter the Area 8 tournament as decided favorites after sweeping challengers Akron and John Essex and defeating Carrolton by more than 20 points in the teams’ first meeting.

But although the Tigers’ won both scheduled meetings with Essex, the Hornets prevented a true season sweep with an eight-point victory over Sunshine in the Greensboro Classic in December. In senior forward Keith Collier and senior point guard Keniote Phillips, Alphus Shipman’s team has the experience and talent to potentially do it again if they can get past ACA. And while Akron failed to defeat the Tigers in three tries, if sharpshooters Courtney Howell and Kenneth Scott warm up from outside the Rams could pull the upset.

AISA West Area IV

Teams: MMI (1), Warrior Academy (2), Sumter Academy (3), Southern Academy (4), WAP (5), Open Door (6).

Regionals: vs. East Area I

Outlook: Although Sumter Academy played host team MMI tough for a half last Friday night, it will be a major, major shock if MMI and Warrior don’t meet for the title Saturday. The two teams have met twice already this season, with MMI pulling out both games in overtime despite huge performances from the Braves’ JaMichael Rivers. Given the way the two have performed against Class A competition this season (they have only one loss to A teams between the two of them) this may only be yet another prelude to a final winner-take-all showdown in the Final Four.

AISA West Area III

Teams: Wilcox Academy (1), Marengo Academy (2), South Choctaw Academy (3), Patrician Academy (4)

Regionals: vs. East Area II

Outlook: The Marengo Longhorns should be able to handle their semifinal opponent, South Choctaw, and advance as at least runners-up to the Regionals. Behind the ‘Horns inside-outside combination of guards Trey Rowell and Randy Martin and forward Josh Dunn, they swept the Rebels by comfortable margins. But upending top seed Wilcox will be a challenge: the Wildcats won both meetings between the two.