A nice mix of traditional powers and newcomers highlight a deep field of contenders for this week’s 100th annual Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Boys Sweet 16 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.
Six teams ranked among the top 10 in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings highlight the field, and the consensus – in a high school basketball season that has seen little consensus atop the state rankings – is that any of the six could capture Sunday’s 2 p.m. championship game.
“It’s hard; I don’t know if there’s a clear-cut favorite,” Cooper coach Tim Sullivan said. “But it’s got the makeup of a really, really memorable Sweet 16.”
The tournament will tip off at noon Wednesday when Bowling Green faces Graves County. The first round will continue through Thursday, with quarterfinals Friday and semifinals Saturday leading to Sunday’s final.
Scott County (30-5) is No. 1 in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings and joins No. 4 Bowling Green (32-2), No. 5 Fern Creek (33-2), No. 6 Ballard (28-6), No. 8 Cooper (28-4) and No. 9 Hopkinsville (28-6) as teams with solid shots at the title.
Scott County, Ballard and Hopkinsville have won a combined six state titles, and Bowling Green is in the field for the fourth straight year. By contrast, Fern Creek and Cooper are in the Sweet 16 for the first time.
In a poll of the 16 coaches who reached the state tournament, Scott County was the slight favorite with seven votes to Bowling Green’s six. Cooper, Hopkinsville and Fern Creek each received one vote. Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own teams.
“I think there are four or five teams that could win it and nobody would be surprised,” Scott County coach Billy Hicks said.
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Hicks’ Cardinals are in the tournament for the first time since finishing as the runners-up in 2014 and feature one of the state’s top sophomores in 6-foot-6 Michael Moreno (22.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg). Moreno is one of three sophomores in Scott County’s starting lineup, one reason several coaches have shied away from making the Cardinals overwhelming favorites.
But Hicks said the team’s relative youth is deceiving.
“I guess people think, ‘Well, they’re too young to (win a state title),” Hicks said. “But there’s a difference between youth and inexperience … and we have a ton of experience.”
Bowling Green has the state’s longest winning streak at 25 and feature two 6-foot-6 seniors in Austin Peay signee Terry Taylor (17.4 ppg, 12.1 rpg) and Kyran Jones (11.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg). Guard Zion Harmon (16.8 ppg) is considered one of the nation’s top eighth-graders.
Bowling Green and Scott County could meet in Friday’s noon quarterfinal.
“If I had to pick a favorite I’d probably pick Bowling Green,” Hicks said. “I saw them in their regional final, and they’re legit.”
Fern Creek and Hopkinsville will face off in a highly anticipated first-round game at noon Thursday. Fern Creek beat Hopkinsville 78-58 on Jan. 7 in the First Security New Years Bash at Muhlenberg County. Fern Creek has won 19 in a row since then.
Ballard and Cooper also are in the bottom half of the bracket with Fern Creek and Hopkinsville. Ballard is in the Sweet 16 for the third time in five years after upsetting No. 3 Trinity in the Seventh Region semifinals and then defeating Christian Academy in the regional final.
Cooper does it with defense, allowing just 49.5 points per game, which ranks No. 1 among the 16 teams in the tournament.
“They guard like piranha,” said Scott coach Steve Fromeyer, whose team lost to Cooper 72-58 on Feb. 17. “They really take pride in the way they guard. They’re good.”
Pulaski County coach John Fraley said several other teams are capable of knocking off the top six.
“I think it’s a very talented tournament,” he said. “There are a lot of good teams that people aren’t expecting to win and maybe overlooking, like us. We’re hoping to get up there and make some noise … I think we’re going to have some upsets. It will be fun to watch.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Josh Cook and Kenzie Winstead contributed to this story.