JJHuddle Boys Basketball D-I Preview: All-Ohio, Top Teams & More

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JJHuddle Ohio High School Boys Basketball Previews

There’s a long time between now and the state finals in March, but as
the boys basketball season in Ohio tips next week, here’s how we see
things. Today we continue the third annual National Guard JJHuddle Boys Basketball Power
Polls. Who is No. 1 in D-I…


Division I Overview

Division I is where the big boys play and after spending several weeks and countless hours analyzing this division, we found it extremely hard to separate one team from another especially the top 10 or 15 teams.

After all the dissecting, we feel cautiously optimistic about our initial Top 10. The list will include some familiar faces along with a few newcomers to the party. At any rate, there is no denying, Division I is going to be fun with lots of parody. We can’t remember a year in recent memory where there weren’t a couple heavy favorites going into the season. This year, we are sure there will be several surprises.

The unique quality of Division I is the depth of the division. Rarely is there a repeat winner from the previous year. Need more proof? Canton McKinley is the only school in 2005 and 2006 to repeat in the four-division era dating back to 1988. We have to rewind all the way back to 1973 and 1974 to find the last back-to-back winner in the big school sector, which was Cincinnati Elder under head coach Paul Frey. Ironically, the Panthers defeated McKinley in the ’74 title game.

Pickerington Central is the reigning Division I champs after shocking the state last year with a dramatic tourney run. Columbus Northland was knocked off in the district by Reynoldsburg, which opened up the door for several teams. The Tigers took advantage, and hopped on the back of senior Caris Levert, who ended up being named JJHUDDLE’s Player of the Year.

The Tigers return one of the state’s best player in junior Jae’Sean Tate, an Ohio State commit along with fellow classmate Connor Kern, but the Tigers lost a lot. Levert graduated, big man Taco Charlton will graduate early to enroll at Michigan to play football,  guard Chad Nelson is now at Ohio Dominican, and junior Javon Bess transferred to Gahanna Lincoln last spring following the state tournament. Tate is a proven winner at all levels, so repeating won’t be impossible, but it will be a tall task with the depth in Division I and a lack of a proven point guard.

Some of the challengers will come from Northwest Ohio, which will have its best chance to win a state championship since Toledo St. John’s in 2004. The Toledo-area has not won a state championship since Toledo Scott in 1990. Toledo Central Catholic, Toledo Whitmer, and Toledo St. John’s will all be serious contenders. Other NW Ohio teams looking to make an impact will be Norwalk, Anthony Wayne,  Toledo Rogers, and Mansfield Senior.

Southwest Ohio has enjoyed plenty of success in this division over the years, and it looks like a pair of teams has a great chance this season. Walnut Hills and Cincinnati Moeller should both contend, while keep an eye on sleepers Springboro, Lakota East, Lakota West, Beavercreek, Huber Heights Wayne, Cincinnati St. Xavier, and Cincinnati LaSalle.

Columbus Northland has carried the banner for the better part of six years for Central Ohio, but there may be a shift in power for at least one year. Westerville North is loaded with quality guards led by the return of Jack Gibbs and Gahanna Lincoln should be another team to compete. Northland is a junior dominated team, but should be very good come tourney time. If you are looking for a sleeper, try Reynoldsburg or Upper Arlington.

Northeast Ohio is always deep and this year won’t be any different. Garfield Heights, Lakewood St. Edward, Warren Harding, and Mentor have been dominant in recent history, but there could be a power shift at least for this year. Teams like Brunswick, Cleveland St. Ignatius, and Shaker Heights are primed for big seasons. St. Edward, Garfield Heights, and Mentor should all be good as well, and Warren Harding remains a mystery after graduating all its top players. Also, never sleep on Cleveland Heights.

Here is a look at some of DI’s top teams and players.

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Basketball Scores:

If you follow Ohio high school basketball, this is the place to share what you know, and to learn what you don’t.

JJ Huddle is expanding the same real-time fan-based coverage that you’ve enjoyed for Football’s
Friday Night Scoreboard
to Boys & Girls Basketball. The information for each school is
collected in a single page, with forms to submit your reports as well as
areas to
read scores and more from other fans, coaches and participants. Sounds
easy…and it is. Exteremly…

How To Report/Get Real-Time Scores

Customize Your Experience

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Preseason All-Ohio Teams:

FIRST TEAM:
Jae’Sean Tate (6’5/Jr.)- Pickerington Central
Marc Loving (6’8/Sr.)- Toledo St. John’s
Nigel Hayes (6’7/Sr.)- Toledo Whitmer
Mark Donnal (6’9/Sr.)- Anthony Wayne
Maverick Morgan (6’10/Sr.)- Springboro

SECOND TEAM:
Jack Gibbs (5’11/Sr.)- Westerville North
Evan Bailey (6’5/Jr.)- Massillon Jackson
Josh Davenport (6’4/Sr.)- Cincinnati Moeller
Vince Edwards (6’7/Jr.)- Middletown
Isaiah Johnson (6’9/Sr.)- Walnut Hills

THIRD TEAM:
Ryan Badowski (6’3/Jr.)- Brunswick
Keon Johnson (5’7/Sr.)- Mansfield Sr.
Monty Boykins (6’4/Sr.)- Lakota West
Aaron Jackson (6’5/Sr.)- Gahanna Lincoln
Zach McCormick (6’2/Jr.)- Cincinnati Turpin

HONORABLE MENTION:
Ahmad Wagner (6’5/So.)- Huber Heights Wayne
Alec Papesch (6’6/Sr.)- Cleveland St. Ignatius
Alex Radkiewcz (6’4/Sr.)- Olentangy Liberty
Alex White (6’6/So.)- Lakota East
Angelo Cugini (6’6/Jr.)- Cuyahoga Falls
Austin Gardner (6’1/Sr.)- Toledo St. John’s
Avery Williams (6’6/Jr.)- Tri-Valley
Ben Esposito (6’2/Sr.)- Lebanon
Ben Haraway (6’0/Jr.)- Norwarlk
Billy Geschke (6’1/Sr.)- Medina
Brandon Bapst (6’5/Sr.)- Grove City
Brandon Fritts (6’4/Jr.)- Mentor
Brendan Cope (6’1/Sr.)- Warren Howland
Brogan Scott (6’4/So.)- Medina Highland
CJ Bussey (6’1/Sr.)- Toledo Central Catholic
Clemmye Owens (6’0/Sr.)- Toledo Rogers
Conner Krizancic (6’2/Jr.)- Mentor
Connor Kern (6’3/Jr.)- Pickerington Central
Connor Speed (5’10/Sr.)- Cincinnati LaSalle
Cordell Smith (5’10/Sr.)- East Cleveland Shaw
Crisshawn Clark (6’2/Sr.)- Huber Heights Wayne
David Bell (6’10/Jr.)- Garfield Heights
Deontae Cole (6’5/Sr.)- Toledo Central Catholic
Derek Sloan (6’5/Sr.)- Cleveland St. Ignatius
DeShone Kizer (6’4/Jr.)- Toledo Central Catholic
DJ Wingfield (6’6/Sr.)- Walnut Hills
Dom Iero (6’1/Sr.)- North Canton Hoover
Donovyn Benson (6’5/Jr.)- Mansfield Sr.
Esa Ahmad (6’6/So.)- Shaker Heights
Francisco Santiago (6’2/Sr.)- Cleveland St. Ignatius
Frankie Hughes (6’2/Fr.)- Garfield Heights
Garrett Mayleben (6’9/Sr.)- Milford
Gavin Skelly (6’8/Jr.)- Westlake
Jackson Replogle (6’4/Sr.)- Centerville
Jake Fetherolf (6’6/Sr.)- Norwalk
Jake Phillis (5’11/Sr.)- Zanesville
Jalen Camper (6’3/Sr.)- Beavercreek
Jalen Dartis (6’3/Sr.)- Newark
Jalen Rhea (6’3/Sr.)- New Albany
Javon Bess (6’5/Jr.)- Gahanna Lincoln
Jaylen Benton (6’2/Sr.)- Westerville North
Jeff Larkin (5’11/Jr.)- Cincinnati LaSalle
Jeff Thomas (6’5/Jr.)- Norwalk
Jeremiah Jackson (5’11/Sr.)- Massillon Perry
Jerome Lane Jr. (6’4/Sr.)- Akron Firestone
JJ Smith (6’3/Sr.)- Columbus Westland
Jordan Dartis (6’2/So.)- Newark
John Teske (6’9/Fr.)- Medina
Josh Williams (6’2/So.)- Barberton
Juan Ford (6’1/Jr.)- Huber Heights Wayne
Kash Blackwell (6’5/Sr.)- Shaker Heights
Keith Griffin (5’10/Fr.)- Shaker Heights
Keith Towbridge (6’5/Sr.)- Toledo Central Catholic
Kenny Paramore (6’0/Sr.)- Copley
Kersey Long (5’10/Sr.)- Columbus Westland
Kevin Gladney (6’4/Sr.)- Akron Firestone
Kevin VanAtta (6’3/Jr.)- Upper Arlington
Kipper Nichols (6’5/So.)- Lakewood St. Edward
Kody Bender (6’1/Sr.)- Elyria
Kwan Cheatham (6’8/Sr.)- Winton Woods
Marcus Bagley (6’0/Jr.)- Cleveland Heights
Marcus Ball (6’3/Sr.)- Westerville South
Marsalis Hamilton (6’3/Jr.)- Lakewood St. Edward
Mike Mills (6’8/Sr.)- Canton McKinley
Mikey Wells (5’8/Sr.)- Delaware Hayes
Miles Griffin (6’2/Sr.)- Massillon Jackson
Myo Baxter (6’4/So.)- Lakota East
Nate Fowler (6’9/So.)- Cincinnati Moeller
Omari Spellman (6’7/Fr.)- North Royalton
Ricardo Smith (6’2/Sr.)- Toledo Whitmer
Rod Mills (6’7/Jr.)- Cincinnati St. Xavier
Rosel Hurley (6’5/Jr.)- Shaker Heights
Seth McCoy (6’2/So.)- Canal Winchester
Shemar Waugh (5’9/Jr.)- Columbus Northland
Stedman Lowry (6’3/Sr.)- Lakota East
Tony Kynard (5’11/Sr.)- Toledo Rogers
Tyler Armagost (6’7/Sr.)- Brunswick
Tyler Hadden (6’11/Sr.)- Cincinnati St. Xavier
Tyler Stern (6’7/Sr.)- Worthington Kilbourne
Tyler Williams (6’3/Jr.)- Lakota West
Wendell Davis (6’4/Sr.)- Reynoldsburg
Will Hill (5’10/Sr.)- Thomas Worthington
Willie Jackson (6’4/Fr.)- Garfield Heights
Xeyrius Williams (6’7/So.)- Huber Heights Wayne
Zack Brandy (6’1/Sr.)- Hudson

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Preseason Notes

*Returning JJHuddle Divison I All-Ohio perfomers include Marc Loving of Toledo St. John’s (1st Team), Nigel Hayes of Toledo Whitmer (2nd Team), and Maverick Morgan of Springboro (3rd Team).

*The Associated Press had Co-Players of the Year in University of Dayton freshman Jalen Robinson and Marc Loving.  

*Returning Associated Press Division II All-Ohio performers include Marc Loving (1st Team), Nigel Hayes (2nd Team), Mikey Wells of Delaware Hayes (3rd Team), Mark Donnal of Anthony Wayne (3rd Team), Evan Bailey of Massillon Jackson (3rd Team), and Jerome Lane Jr. of Akron Firestone (3rd Team).

*DJ Wingfield earned 3rd Team JJHUDDLE Division IV All-Ohio accolades while at Lockland High School as a junior. Wingfield has transferred to Walnut Hills.

*Division I- Division 1 commits include Marc Loving (Ohio State), Mark Donnal (Michigan), Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin), Maverick Morgan (Illinois), Aaron Jackson of Gahanna Lincoln (Akron), Isaiah Johnson of Walnut Hills (Akron), Kwan Cheatham of Winton Woods (Akron), Jack Gibbs of Westerville North (Davidson), Josh Davenport of Cincinnati Moeller (Winthrop), Keon Johnson of Mansfield Senior (Winthrop), Garrett Mayleben of Milford (Bowling Green), Tony Kynard of Toledo Rogers (Bethune-Cookman), Clemmye Owens of Toledo Rogers (Bethune-Cookman), Jalen Rhea of New Albany (American), Deontae Cole of Toledo CC (Northern Kentucky), Patrick Wrencher of Cincinnati Moeller (St. Francis, PA), DJ Wingfield of Walnut Hills (Ohio), and Tyler Hadden of Cincinnati St. Xavier (Belmont).

*Jae’Sean Tate of Pickerington Central (Ohio State) is the lone 2014 D1 commit.

*Division II- Division 2 commits include Wendell Davis of Reynoldsburg (Ashland), Stedman Lowry of Lakota East (Hillsdale), Brandon Bapst of Grove City (Malone), Tyler Stern of Worthingon Kilbourne (Findlay), Austin Gardner of Toledo St. John’s (Findlay), Ricardo Smith of Toledo Whitmer (Findlay), Mike Mills of Canton McKinley (Lincoln Memorial), and Kody Bender of Elyria (West Liberty).

*Connor Kern of Pickerington Central (Wheeling Jesuit) is the only 2014 D2 commit.

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Top Teams

NORTHWEST OHIO

*Toledo St. John’s (15-7)
The Titans finished with 15 wins in 2012, which is great at some schools, but at Toledo St. John’s those numbers are expected. St. John’s suffered some ups and downs a year ago losing point guard Austin Gardner for several games with a wrist injury, falling to Columbus Northland by 32 points, getting swept by rival Toledo Central Catholic, and losing two out of three to rival Whitmer including a 43-38 setback in the district semis.

The Titans are healthy to start the season, which isn’t good news for their opponents. If a foundation game against a very good Romulus (MI) team featuring Missouri, Rhode Island, and Louisiana Tech commits is any indication of what this team is capable of then look out. St. John’s defeated Romulus 76-70. Ohio State signee Marc Loving (6’8/Sr.) scored 25 points and snagged six rebounds and Findlay commit Gardner (6’1/Sr.) chipped in 21 points and seven rebounds.

Loving, one of the state’s better players averaged nearly 23 points and nine rebounds per game as a junior earning 1st Team JJHUDDLE and AP All-Ohio accolades. Loving, who is regarded as the state’s top prospect, is also the reigning Three Rivers Athletic Conference Player of the Year. Gardner is coming off a stellar spring/summer, so look for him to be one of the better players in Northwest Ohio. He averaged 12 points and four assists as a junior.

Junior Anthony Glover (6’0/5.0 ppg.) should have a breakout year and Tyler Thompson (6’1/Sr.) returns as well with the ability to be a defensive stopper. Look for juniors Trevor Walsh (6’4) and Parker Ernsthausen along with senior shooter Chris Stearns (6’0) to provide depth. Freshman Gabe Kynard (5’11) should also see quality minutes.

The Titans always play a terrific schedule and this year is not any different. The slate includes games with Shaker Heights, Whitmer, Central Catholic, Findlay, Toledo Rogers, Lakewood St. Edward, and four games in a holiday tournament in Mesa, Arizona.

Bottom Line: Toledo St. John’s is the best program in the state of Ohio to never have won a state title. The Titans were a heavy favorite in 2004, but fell short to an upstart Hamilton team. The Toledo-based school also finished runner-up in 1993 and 1996. Coach Ed Heintschel has been the boss for all six state tournament appearances. St. John’s hasn’t been to Columbus since 2009, but after watching its rivals Toledo CC and Whitmer show up at the state tournament the past two seasons, could this be the year it returns. Loving takes a lot of criticism for kid that is about to become the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder at one of the state’s top basketball schools. This may be the year Loving along with his running mate Gardner leads this team to his future home on the campus of The Ohio State University. The production of the role players will be key to get past some of the district and region’s best teams.

*Toledo Central Catholic (17-5)
We know several things about Toledo Central Catholic right off the top of the list. First, the Irish are still playing football, as Toledo CC will go for the Division II football crown on Friday night. Second, it may take awhile for the football guys to get their basketball legs under them. Finally, Toledo CC has a ton of experience combined with one of the state’s best in-game coaches in Jim Welling.

The Irish return four kids with unrivaled experience, which should go a long way, come March. The district will be challenging with Toledo St. John’s and Toledo Whitmer joining the Irish. It wouldn’t surprise us if anyone of these three won the district, regional, or state.

Keith Towbridge, who is a 6-foot-5 and 240-pound senior, is TCC’s leading scorer at 14 points per game adding eight rebounds also. Towbridge, who will play college football at Louisville, was 1st Team All-Three Rivers Athletic Conference. Deontae Cole (6’6/Sr.) averaged eight points per contest as a junior, who is a Northern Kentucky verbal and deadly spot up shooter. Senior CJ Bussey (6’1) averaged eight points per game as a junior, but look for much more production after a productive offseason. Junior DeShone Kizer (6’5) has a chance to have a breakout season if he is dialed into basketball. Kizer is a mid-major basketball prospect, and one of the country’s best quarterback prospects.

Senior Jayme Thompson (6’2) should provide the Irish with depth and athleticism off the bench. Thompson is heading to Ohio State on a football scholarship.

Two games with Findlay, Toledo Scott, Bowling Green, Anthony Wayne, two with Toledo St. John’s, two with Toledo Whitmer, Elida, and Bedford (MI) comprise the majority of Toledo CC’s daunting schedule.

Bottom Line: The Irish may not have the most basketball talent, but they make up for it with experience, athleticism, and superior coaching. Coach Welling gets the absolute most out of his teams, and this one has talent, which isn’t good for the rest of the state. Towbridge’s output will likely stay the same, but look for Bussey, Kizer, and Cole to really emerge as scorers. If they don’t, look for closer, low scoring games as in year’s past. The other thing that concerns us about Central Catholic is the depth of state-ranked teams in NW Ohio.

*Toledo Whitmer (24-3)
Toledo Whitmer is coming off a state runner up finish in 2012, which was its second trip to the state tournament in five years. Veteran head coach Bruce Smith welcomes back a nice nucleus from that team, but are still uncertain as to some things due to the football team’s success. The Panthers will play for the Division I football gold on Saturday night.

Despite the success of the football team, Whitmer still has plenty to be more than formidable to start the season. Nigel Hayes (6’7/Sr.), a Wisconsin pledge, is a good place to start. Hayes averaged 13 points and nine rebounds as a junior earning 2nd Team JJHUDDLE All-Ohio honors. Two more starters return in Ricardo Smith (6’2/Sr.) and Luke Hickey (6’0/Sr.). Smith averaged just over 12 points per game as junior. The Findlay commit should be even productive this year with the graduation of Leroy Alexander (Nebraska FB).

Juniors Jon Ashe (6’1), Chris Parker (5’11), and Chris Boykin (6’4) are returnees vying for the final two starting spots.

“We have three starters back from a state runner up team, but we are considerably behind due to half of our team still playing football,” Smith noted. “We will be good eventually, but right now we are pretty much in limbo until the rest of my team arrives.”

Whitmer’s schedule features games with Toledo St. John’s, Norwalk, Findlay, Bowling Green, Anthony Wayne, and Toledo CC.
 
Bottom Line:
Whitmer has a chance to be very good once again with the return of the versatile Hayes and a proven scorer in Smith. How good the Panthers will be might depend on who decides to come out from the football team. Coach Smith is counting on several of those kids to provide his team with depth. Whitmer will have an excellent chance to return to Columbus, but there isn’t much difference between rivals St. John’s, Toledo CC, and the Panthers. We would feel confident interchanging any of the three squads. Three games are possible between the three teams. Whitmer defeated St. John’s on its tournament run last year, but didn’t have to face Central Catholic as Sylvania Southview upset the Irish in the district semis. Norwalk, from the Bowling Green District, could play spoiler for one of the three Toledo heavyweights.

*Norwalk (23-1)
Many believed the Norwalk Truckers were the beneficiary of a mainly Division II schedule last year and didn’t belong with the Division I elites, and that list included us. After an undefeated regular season and tournament wins over Sandusky, Mansfield Senior, and Anthony Wayne, the Truckers entered regional play against powerhouse Whitmer. Norwalk took the eventual state runner up to the wire before falling short in a hard-fought, low scoring, and defensive battle, 40-32.

The loss proved Norwalk belonged with the big boys despite its schedule. Consider this there are only 13 Division I schools smaller than Norwalk and the Truckers have 436 less boys than Whitmer at the last enrollment count. It really is amazing Norwalk is able to compete, but that just goes to show what type of talent and coaching the Truckers possess.

“We are very optimistic,” Gray said. “We want to build on the success we enjoyed last year. We are very athletic and have a very good basketball IQ, work ethic, and team chemistry. We will be a much better shooting team this year. We will have the ability to score and the added depth will help with very competitive practices. We want to advance further in the tournament this year.”

Norwalk returns 50 points per game from last year’s squad led by the big three of senior Jake Fetherolf (6’6), and juniors Jeff Thomas (6’5) and point guard Ben Haraway (6’0).

Fetherolf averaged 13 points and eight rebounds as a junior, but shot just 58 percent at the free-throw line.

“Jake is an athletic post,” mentioned Steve Gray, Norwalk’s head coach. “He is long and can rebound and block shots. He has nice moves around the basket. He can also step out and shoot the three. Jake is much improved from last year and should be one of the better post players in the area.”

Thomas tallied 13 points and five rebounds starting as a sophomore and shot 40 percent behind the arc. He is drawing Division 1 interest.

“Jeff is a very good athlete,” Gray stated. “He will play inside and out. He is a good passer, can put the ball on the floor, and get to the rim. Jeff needs to get stronger and quicker, but he plays above the rim and has the ability to average a double double. He one of the best players in the area.”

Haraway returns at point guard after averaging 10 points and a team-leading 4.5 assists per game as a sophomore. Haraway had the fewest turnovers of any point guard in the NOL last season, according to Gray.

“Ben could be one of the better point guards in the area,” Gray mentioned. “He has improved his perimeter shot over the summer. Ben is quick, a very good passer, and he will quarterback our team.”

Trey Hallock (6’3/Sr.), Chianti Ghalson (5’6/Sr.), Damius Peacock (6’3/Sr.), Cody Gregory (6’4/Sr.), Ryan Hull (6’0/Sr.), and Grant Hull (6’1/Jr.) make up the rest of a very deep team. Hallock averaged about six points per game last year, Peacock is the most athletic player in the program per Gray, and Gregory and Grant Hull can both shoot the pill.

Keep an eye on juniors Kaleb Cashen (6’4) and Jordon Johnson (6’0) along with sophomore Breck Turner (6’0) as all three will be vying for minutes.

Norwalk’s register includes Sandusky Perkins, Toledo Rogers, Bellevue, Willard, Tiffin Columbian, Toledo Whitmer, the Ontario tournament, and Huron.

Bottom Line: Norwalk has a very good nucleus back from last year’s 23-win team. Haraway, Thomas, and Fetherolf are one of the better three-headed monsters in the state. The schedule isn’t comparable to some of the other heavyweights in DI, but the coaching in the Northern Ohio League is very good, which allows Norwalk to be prepared for the tournament. There should be zero questions on whether the Truckers can compete in Division I after last year, so this team shouldn’t surprise anyone. A late, January game with Whitmer should really give Norwalk a barometer of where it’s in terms of areas of improvement needed for the stretch run. Findlay, Anthony Wayne, and Mansfield Senior will all provide a serious challenge in district play, but Norwalk has an excellent chance of advancing to regional play once again.

SOUTHWEST OHIO

*Cincinnati Moeller (21-4)
Moeller may be the most consistent basketball program in Ohio winning 20-plus games almost every year and capturing three state titles since 1999, a runner up in 2010, and another semi-final appearance in 2005. The Crusaders, under head coach Carl Kremer, will have another legitimate chance at 20-plus wins this season by welcoming back some very talented kids and a few “big” additions.

A good place to start would be senior Josh Davenport (6’3). The versatile Davenport averaged 14.7 points and 7.1 rebounds a game as a junior, which led the Crusaders in both categories. Davenport, who is a Winthrop signee, will be called on to lead this year and take on an even greater scoring role.  

Moeller lost to graduation its second, third, fourth, and fifth leading scorers from last year, but don’t feel sorry for it, Big Moe’ has kids ready to step up and fill those spots. Northwestern football commit Keith Watkins (5’11/Sr.) should return at guard once football season is over. The Crusaders will play Toledo Whitmer for the DI football prize on Saturday night. Watkins averaged 4.6 points in just 10 games last season after missing much of the year with a football injury.

Junior Grant Benzinger (6’2) should provide Moeller with another much needed scoring threat. Benzinger, whose father (Todd) played Major League Baseball, has improved immensely over the past year and should be ready to shine for the Crusaders. Senior Patrick Wrencher (6’6) and junior guard Tre’ Hawkins (5’9) are also returnees. Wrencher, a St. Francis (PA) commit, provides depth on the interior. Hawkins will take on a heavier load at guard until Watkins returns.

The most impactful newcomer may be Nate Fowler (6’8/So.). Big Nate dressed varsity as a freshman at Moeller, which is nearly unheard of under Kremer. Fowler, who is regarded as one of the best center prospects in the Midwest, will give the Crusaders a legitimate threat in the post. Fowler has great footwork on the interior, excellent hands, and can be an elite passer for a big man. Defensively, he will have to improve on the ball, but his high basketball IQ allows him to get good position on the defensive end in the paint.

Other returning players include Corey Muchmore (6’4/Sr.), Adam Gigax (6’6/Jr.), and Gus Ragland (6’2/Jr.). Gigax is an excellent shooter, who has got stronger. Newcomers Jack Anton (6’7/Jr.) and rugged sophomore Chris Bucher (5’9/So.) should also help the cause.

Moeller returned to regional play again last season before losing to a good Middletown team in the semis, 41-37.

Moeller’s schedule will be very good once again with Covington Catholic (KY), Cincinnati LaSalle, Cincinnati Elder, Cincinnati St. Xavier, Middletown, Cincinnati Aiken, Roger Bacon, Wilmington, Kettering Alter, Winton Woods, and four games at the Gulfshore Invitational in Naples, Florida.

Bottom Line:
The Crusaders have a chance for another big year if the guards step up. Keith Watkins will be the x-factor for this team. If he is healthy and focused on basketball, Moeller has a great chance to return to the state tournament yet again. Walnut Hills may be the favorite on paper, but Moeller has tradition, size, and a pedigree for winning in the tournament on its side. Southwest Ohio still runs through the Crusaders. If Benzinger steps up as the scorer we think he can be along with Davenport’s production and Fowler’s inside presence, Moeller will be a legitimate threat to cut the nets down in Columbus.

 


*Walnut Hills (19-3)
In 2009, we heard about a terrific 8th grade class at Walnut Hills, and those kids are seniors. The group suffered some growing pains over the last three years, and even a departure from one of its top players before its freshmen campaign. However, after playing at different high schools, that player has returned to Walnut Hills for his senior season.

The Eagles won 19 games a year ago before falling to Cincinnati Princeton (69-64) in the district semis. All five starters return from that team along with three key bench players and two big transfers. After two district semi-final appearances and one sectional final showing, Walnut Hills is primed to take the next step. Much like Pickerington Central did in 2012 making a huge leap from the previous year, the Eagles have the potential to do the same.

“This is a senior dominated team with experience,” said rookie boss Ricardo Hill Sr. “We will have the ability to play a fast pace game or a more deliberate game depending on the competition. We increased our strength of schedule in order to prepare us for the season ending tournament.”

Senior Isaiah Johnson (6’9) leads the group of returning starters in both scoring (17.1 ppg.) and rebounding (11.9 rpg.). Johnson is an Akron commit. Senior point guard Sterling Gilmore averaged 9.4 points per game as a junior, and has a chance to be even more productive this year. Kodey Jackson (6’5/Sr.) is coming off a junior year averaging 7.5 points and 6.6 rebounds, and guard Khari Burton (5’7/Sr.) chipped in 6.8 points and led the team in assists. The other returning starter is Ricardo Hill (5’10/Sr.), who scored 5.6 points and is the son of the head coach. The elder Hill runs the successful Cincinnati Lakers AAU program.

David Irby (6’1/Sr.), Adam Brown (5’10/Sr.), and Stuart Holt (5’10) are more returnees.

DJ Wingfield (6’6/Sr.), who we mentioned above, leads the pair of newcomers. Wingfield played junior high with this senior group before stops at Cincinnati Country Day and most recently Lockland. Wingfield, who is an Ohio University commit, averaged 19 points per game as a junior. His father played, Dontonio Wingfield Sr., played for the University of Cincinnati and the NBA.

Jordan Tyson (6’10/Sr.) transferred in from Columbus. Tyson has always showed flashes of his talent and potential, but has been in several school systems. This could be the move he needs to establish some stability.

Walnut Hills will play nationally ranked Huntington Prep (WV), Cincinnati Turpin, Springboro, Cincinnati LaSalle, Roselle Catholic (NJ), Cincinnati Princeton, and Cincinnati St. Xavier.

Bottom Line: Though, the Eagles don’t have a pedigree of being a major player in March, look for that trend to change this year. Walnut Hills has terrific guards in Gilmore, Burton, Hill, and now Wingfield to go with its moneyman in the paint (Isaiah Johnson). Add in Jackson and Tyson on the interior, and there doesn’t seem to be many weaknesses for this team. The only thing going against them is the tradition of teams like Cincinnati Moeller and some others. However, on paper, there isn’t a more complete unit in SW Ohio and perhaps the state then Walnut Hills.

CENTRAL OHIO

*Westerville North (18-5)
The Warriors were all set for a run at the state tournament a season ago, but a season-ending injury to star guard Jack Gibbs in December all but ended that thought. North still finished with a solid 18 wins and a trip to the district before losing to a good Newark team, 63-62 in overtime, but it had higher goals in mind.

Gibbs (5’11/Sr.), a Davidson commit, was averaging 13 points per game before his knee injury, which sidelined him for several months. What Gibbs brings to the table is not just seen in his ball handling, defense, or scoring ability, but with his energy, tenacity, and ability to lead a team. All those intangibles were lost when he went down. Still regarded as one of the top guards in the state, Gibbs should return to form after getting some live games under his belt.

Jaylen Benton (6’1/Sr.), Adrian Cook (5’11/Sr.), Caleb Ledford (6’1/Sr.), Brett Durden (6’1/Sr.), and Darren Nettles (5’11/Sr.) will join Gibbs in what should be the best and deepest backcourt in the state. Benton averaged 12.8 points and 4.5 assists in his first year at North. Cook, a three-year starter, tallied 12.7 points and 4.6 assists as a junior.

With all the talent at guard, perhaps the most important member of the team will be big man Alex Stewart (6’5/Sr.). Stewart, who has improved every year, is a banger on the interior with some added range to his game. The junior averaged 7.9 points as a sophomore, and should see a heavy increase in minutes.

Isaiah Keene (6’5/Jr.) is a welcome addition transferring in from Worthington Christian. R.J. Hutcherson (6’6/Jr.) is another key newcomer coming up from the jayvee team.

“Guard play and speed will be our strengths,” said Kevin Thuman, who will start his 18th year as head coach at Westerville North. “Lack of inside depth is a weakness at this point.”

Two key members from last year’s team will need replaced in shooter Matt Rhodes (Walsh University) and inside ace Taivion Thomas (Columbus State). Both were crucial members for the Warriors.

Westerville North’s slate has Westerville South, Westerville Central, Columbus Brookhaven, Cleveland VASJ, Quality Education Academy (NJ), and Newark.

Bottom Line: If North can stay healthy, the sky is the limit for this team. The return of Gibbs gives the Warriors an enormous lift not just with his play, but also with his leadership ability. Every team Gibbs has played on in his basketball career, he has been able to raise the energy level of his teammates to his. There is no doubt that North will have a great and deep backcourt, but the key will be the interior at some point during tournament play. Stewart is more than capable, but he has to stay focused and stay out of foul trouble, which may be a challenge with the way he plays. North should be able to spread teams out on offense and be successful, and look for a lot of transition buckets off steals and turnovers. The Warriors are the favorite in Central Ohio, but several teams will look to challenge.

NORTHEAST OHIO

*Cleveland St. Ignatius (16-6)
Cleveland St. Ignatius is a football school and rightfully so; the Wildcats have earned 11 state championships in the past 25 seasons. In basketball, St. Ignatius has won state title (2001) and a runner up in 1998 under then head coach Brian Becker. Fifth year boss Sean O’Toole has the personnel to add a second gold to the basketball trophy case.

Three starters return for the Wildcats led by Derek Sloan (6’5/Sr.), Alec Papesch (6’6/Sr.), and Francisco Santiago (6’2/Sr.). Sloan averaged a team-best 13.1 points and 8.8 rebounds a game. Papesch was good for 12.3 points and 7.5 rebounds, and Santiago totaled 10 points a night.

This will be O’Toole’s deepest team at St. Ignatius.

Returnees include Austin Sterpka (6’2/Sr.), twins David (6’6/Jr.) and Eric (6’6/Jr.) Black, Bryan Fisher (6’1/Sr.), Matt Gawlik (6’3/Sr.), Kyle Berger (6’3/Jr.), Danny Bova (6’1/Jr.), Isiah Barbra (6’3/Jr.), and sophomore Jaylin McDonald (6’5).

St. Ignatius had a very good team jayvee team a year ago as well finishing (18-2).

The Wildcats will play a formidable schedule, which includes Cleveland John Hay, Canton McKinley, Cleveland CC, Detroit Jesuit, Columbus Northland, Akron SVSM, two games with Lakewood St. Edward, Our Savior New America (NY), St. Clairsville, Perrysburg, Cleveland Heights, Cleveland VASJ, and Cleveland Benedictine.

Bottom Line:
St. Ignatius has always been stellar on defense under O’Toole and now it has depth and scoring punch to add to the mix. The latter could put the Wildcats over the top and into the state tournament. Northeast Ohio is always deep and tough to advance in the tournament, but St. Ignatius will be at the front of the pack with an excellent chance of returning to Columbus for the first time since 2001. Santiago, Sloan, and Papesch should carry the scoring load and look for David Black to be more productive. This team has the feel of a team that could be special, but we will have to wait and see.

*Brunswick (15-6)
After a very good regular season, Brunswick got caught off guard in its tournament opener against Medina with the return of Michigan State freshman Kenny Kaminski. The Blue Devils defeated Medina in the regular season, but Kaminski missed the entire regular season with a shoulder injury. However, he returned for the tournament, and helped the Bees take out Brunswick (51-45) and advance all the way to the regionals.

Don’t look for Brunswick to get caught off guard this season with the return of four starters and two key bench players. Ryan Badowski (6’3/Jr.) leads the quartet of starters for the Blue Devils. Badowski averaged 16.2 points per game as a sophomore including 20 points, the game tying shot in regulation, and the game-winner in overtime in a 56-54 win over Shaker Heights. Badowski will be one of the top guards in Northeast Ohio.

Seniors Kyle Wheeler (6’5/Jr.) and Taylor Armagost (6’7) along with junior Zach Parker (6’3/Jr.) round out the returning starters.

“We return a lot of talent and experience from a year ago,” said Joe Mackey, Brunswick’s veteran boss. “We have one of the better guards in Northeast Ohio in Ryan Badowski and a quality center in Taylor Armagost. I think we should be one of the better teams in all of Ohio.”

Patrick Jarvis (6’5/Sr.) and Alex Hartill (6’5/Sr.) give the Blue Devils more size and depth for what should be a deep tournament run.

Brunswick’s schedule includes games with Pickerington Central, Mentor, Shaker Heights, and a pair of contests with Garfield Heights.

Bottom Line: There are no easy paths to the regional in Division I, but Brunswick’s course will be favorable especially with the talent, size, and versatility it has. Firestone, Cuyahoga Falls, and Hudson could challenge the Blue Devils, but Brunswick will still be the favorite to get to the regional. Brunswick played last season with mostly sophomores and juniors, but those kids are now seasoned veterans ready to make a deep run.

*Shaker Heights (21-3)
The Red Raiders enjoyed a fine season last winter winning 21 games advancing to regional play before falling to a good Lakewood St. Edward team in the semis, 79-70 despite a monster performance from the departed Terry Rozier. Shaker Heights had arguably the toughest path of any team in last year’s tournament having to beat studs Cleveland JFK, Cleveland St. Ignatius, and Garfield Heights before losing to Ed’s.

The Red Raiders lose perhaps the most talented player in the state in Terry Rozier. The Dwayne Wade look alike is committed to play at Louisville, but he will be spending this season at Hargrave Military Academy. Rozier was the Division I JJHUDDLE Player of the Year after averaging nearly 26 points per game.

Last year’s tournament run and leadership of Rozier should do wonders for this year’s young and talented Red Raiders squad. Most of the youngster got serious minutes, and are now a year older.

Senior Kash Blackwell (6’5) leads the list of returnees. Blackwell averaged 13.5 points per game as a junior. He will be joined by two talented Division 1 prospects in junior Rosel Hurley (6’5) and sophomore Esa Ahmad (6’6).

Hurley is an extremely gifted wing with great length and the ability to score in bunches. Ahmad is one of the more refined sophomore prospects in Ohio. He can do damage in the paint against smaller defenders and take bigger guys out on the perimeter.

Freshman point guard Keith Griffin (5’10) will be counted on for major minutes. Griffin is the ultimate competitor, so starting on the varsity will likely be something he welcomes with open arms.

Shaker Heights will battle Toledo St. John’s, Brunswick, Mentor, Cleveland Benedictine, Garfield Heights, Hudson, and Lakewood St. Edward in what should be a difficult schedule.

Bottom Line: Shaker Heights has terrific talent, but will that be enough to repeat last year’s success. The Red Raiders really need Hurley to be the player he has shown in travel ball and during fall showcases. He has immense talent, but needs to be more consistent. Ahmad’s production will greatly increase. He is one of the more productive youngsters we have seen in quite awhile. If Blackwell gives the same output as last season or even a little more with the assumption that Hurley and Ahmad step up, this could be another big year at Shaker. It will be interesting to see how Griffin responds in big games on the varsity scene. He could be the difference maker by tournament time. 

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Don’t Sleep On These Teams

Akron Firestone, Akron Green, Anthony Wayne, Barberton, Beavercreek, Bedford, Centerville, Cincinnati LaSalle, Cincinnati Princeton, Cincinnati St. Xavier, Cincinnati Turpin, Cincinnati Western Hills, Cincinnati Winton Woods, Cincinnati Withrow, Clayton Northmont, Cleveland Heights, Columbus Northland, Columbus Walnut Ridge, Cuyahoga Falls, Delaware Hayes, Dublin Coffman, Dublin Scioto, Elyria, Euclid, Fairfield, Findlay, Gahanna Lincoln, Garfield Heights, Huber Heights Wayne, Lakewood St. Edward, Lakota East, Lakota West, Mansfield Senior, Massillon Jackson, Mentor, Middletown, New Albany, Newark, North Canton Hoover, Olentangy Liberty, Perrysburg, Pickerington Central, Reynoldsburg, Solon, Springboro, Toledo Rogers, Upper Arlington, Westlake, Westerville South, and Zanesville.

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