Monday, February 28, 2005

Wisconsin Sectional #8: Where Good Teams Go To Die

Tomorrow kicks off the beginning of the high school boys state tournament in Wisconsin. What that means for me is that every weekend from here on out will be interesting, as there will be plenty of good games. This is particularly true in Milwaukee, where there's no shortage of solid teams getting ready to try and make a run to the state tournament in Madison. And of the three Milwaukee-based sectionals, none is ever tougher than the storied Sectional #8, which is home to most of the area's traditional powers. Occasionally there's a slight shift in power (for instance, Milwaukee Washington is no longer a given as one of the top schools in the sectional), but there's never an easy path to Madison if you're in Sectional 8. And after repeatedly looking at the brackets this year, I think I've convinced myself that the upper bracket of Sectional 8 is as tough a Regional as there's ever been.

Now, in making that last statement, I'm not saying that the best teams that I've ever seen are in that Regional. I've seen more elite level teams, but from top to bottom, I've never seen so many dangerous teams so closely concentrated within the bracket. I'd call it unfair, but in my old age I've come to understand the value to having representatives from all corners of the state (my college friends who lived near the Minnesota border, for instance, always had a strange affinity for Hudson, despite none of them being from the city of Hudson) I have no idea which team will advance to the Sectional finals, as all but one team has something big going for it. Let's take a look at the seeds in the upper bracket, from top to bottom:

(1) Milwaukee Pius: They're the #1 seed, so that says something right there. The Popes' coach won 18 straight state titles when he was coaching the Pius girls, and he seems to be bringing the same discipline to the boys. A Classic 8 conference championship, as well as wins over Wauwatosa East and Waukesha North (both ranked in the state's top-10 at various points this season) demand respect for the Popes. Their only losses have come to the aforementioned Waukesha North, and undefeated Wisconsin Rapids. And they even have a little bit of star power, with junior D'Angelo Jackson, who's becoming very highly regarded (though he didn't stand out to me in the only Popes game that I saw this year). Pius might not be the team most jammed with talent, but they may be the toughest out, due to their consistency, and solid coaching.

(2) Wauwatosa East: Ranked #10 in the state. The Red Raiders haven't lost since December 10, and have the state's top junior, Jerry Smith, who scored 38 points in his last regular season game. Always a power, Tosa East got out to a slow start before settling on a regular rotation, and have improved as much as a team as I've seen in recent memory. Smith is always the main draw, but a handful of players are capable of stepping up on any given night to be second in command. The only losses on the season have come to Pius, and West Allis Hale, a #1 seed in Sectional #7. I've seen more of these guys than any team, and they're definitely worthy of some court time at the Kohl Center. So are about 4-5 other teams in the sectional, though.

(3) Milwaukee King: Ranked #4 in the state, yet third in their own regional. They have the nation's top freshman at point guard. They have a junior 7-foot center who's getting looks from division one schools. They're the reigning state champs, and have a couple of experienced winners returning from last year's squad. They knocked off nationally ranked Milwaukee Vincent in a City Conference showdown last week. Does this sound like a #3 seed to you? Well, due only to their own inconsistency (5 losses, 3 of which came within Wisconsin), they are a #3. If they're playing their game, this is easily the toughest #3 seed in the history of the state tournament (which has only been seeded at regionals for 3-4 years, now). If they're not, beating them is still an accomplishment.

(4) Milwaukee Riverside: Boasts an 11-6 record overall, including and 8-2 record in a surprisingly deep City Conference this year. Key wins came over Milwaukee Bay View and Milwaukee Juneau. Last week the Tigers also managed to take down #3 seed Milwaukee King in conference play, serving notice that they're dangerous. Consistency is also a question for the Tigers, but you can never count out a team that knocks off an all-star team like King.

(5) Milwaukee Marquette: A series of inexplicable losses and injuries have tainted the Hilltoppers' season, but the healing of injuries and a big win over West Allis Hale, a #1 seed in Sectional #7 make Marquette just about the most dangerous #5 seed I can imagine. Name another #5 seed that has two 6'6" guys (Matt Mulcahy and Alexis Pease) that both could end up playing low-level division one college ball next year if they so choose (Pease should go Ivy or Patriot League, while Mulcahy's future may be in volleyball, though schools have also shown interest in his basketball ability). Make no mistake--Marquette did underachieve to earn the #5 seed, but with Mulcahy back after about a month off with an ankle sprain, and other players (including Pease) finally recovering from nagging injuries, this is one #5 seed I wouldn't want to face. Things could click at just the right time for the Hilltoppers.

(6) Wauwatosa West: Okay, I've seen Tosa West play twice, and they're not an overwhelming team. They've got a couple of solid players (Zarkis Jordan would get time at any of the higher ranked schools) though, and at one point whipped off a seven-game winning streak. I'm not expecting a win out of the 11-9 Trojans, but you can't completely discount a team that wins 7 in a row. Again, speaking to the depth of the regional, I'm doubtful that there are many #6 seeds out there who have that kind of a winning steak. They're a weak threat, but a threat nonetheless.

(7) Milwaukee Marshall: They're a 6-11 team, and they're probably the only team that can't be considered any kind of threat to get a win in the regional. Then again, the did beat a good Milwaukee Bay View team earlier this year, and they are coached by former longtime Bay View coach Phil Jones, who was forced out of his former position by Milwaukee Public Schools last year. Jones has taken a team to state as recently as 1998. And he's coaching the #7 seed. Sure, it's not much, but find me a #7 seed where you can come up with two positives--I dare you.

So that's the upper bracket of the sectional. What does the winner get? Well, the most likely scenario lets them face off with Milwaukee Tech, the #1 seed in the lower bracket of the regional, and a team lurking just outside the state's top-10. Again, I've definitely seen better teams in this sectional before, but I've never seen a year where even the so-called weak teams are so good. It's going to be a fun 2 weeks leading up to the state tourney. I'll be back with a first-round update (and probably something about the Wisconsin-Indiana game) tomorrow night.

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