On paper, the Gold Division is the better group this year. There are no shortage of interesting matchups, storylines and historical notes.
Games to watch and storylines
1. Nixa vs. Bolivar, The Sequel – Most everyone’s eyes are drawn to this potential finals rematch. Understandably so. Last year, Bolivar ended Nixa’s record run of five consecutive Blue and Gold championships. The 2015 meeting was far from perfect basketball, but it was a competitive game that came down to the final shot. Nixa-Bolivar would also mean a matchup of Brandon Emmert-Christian Bundy in the paint, a battle of the area’s top two post players. Nixa and Bolivar don’t play in the regular season, so this would be our only chance to see these two teams battle it out. One thing to watch, neither Nixa or Bolivar are very deep, so foul trouble will be key for both sides. If Emmert or Bundy run into foul issues, it will dramatically swing the game. Bundy ran into that problem in Tuesday night’s game against Harrison, a game Nixa barely squeaked out, 69-67.
2.History in the making – Nixa will look to start a new streak for consecutive Blue and Gold championships this year, but the Eagles are still on the brink of setting records elsewhere. Nixa coach Jay Osborne is three wins shy (62) of surpassing former Ozark coach Steve Hunter (64) for most B&G Tournament coaching wins. Additionally, Nixa (10) is currently tied with Glendale and Ozark for the second-most B&G Tournament titles. Kickapoo leads everyone with 12.
3. Double trouble – Look for Bolivar to run most of its offense through the tandem of Conley Garrison and Brandon Emmert, through pick-and-rolls or drive-and-dish. The Liberators aren’t as deep as they were last year, but they’re 8-0 (entering Wednesday’s game at Helias Catholic) and will have two of the 10 best players in this tournament on their side.
4. Tradition-rich Wildcats – It’s Greenwood’s tournament. Kickapoo’s had the most historical success and Nixa’s had the most recent success. But in terms of sheer volume, Rogersville’s name is everywhere in the Blue and Gold record book. The Wildcats have the most tournament wins (110), most top-four finishes (30) and are tied for the eighth-most tournament titles with six, although they haven’t won a B&G since 2003, with a team that featured Drew Richards and Tim Brown.
5. Purple vs. Red – Once we hit the quarterfinals, the 4 vs. 5 matchup is almost always your best bet for game of the day. I think that’s the case here with 4-seed Ozark and 5-seed Fair Grove. Quinn Nelson (13.7 ppg through five games), Parker Hanks (15 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Payton Nichols (10.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg) form Ozark’s main scoring trio. This will be the rare case of the big-school team being out-sized against the small-school team as Fair Grove boasts 6’4” Steven Huskey, 6’5” Garrett Kesterson and 6’7” Evan Fullerton in the forward and post positions.
6. Hosts and underdogs – As the host school, Greenwood’s been a part of all 71 Blue and Gold Tournaments. But they’ve been a little too gracious to the visitors in recent seasons. Greenwood’s lost six straight Blue and Gold games and nine of its last 10 overall. I think they’re equipped to win a few this year. Obviously, top-seed Nixa poses all sorts of problems in the quarterfinals, but Reeds Spring is a beatable opponent for the Blue Jays in the opening round. Like Willard, Greenwood just missed out on a seed. But often times, the unseeded teams draw more favorable bracket pairings.
7. Upset Watch, Part I – Watch out for Willard. The Tigers have dealt with injury and off-the-court issues (suspensions) early this season, but if they’ve got a full roster available for this tournament, I think they have a favorable first-round matchup against Lebanon. I thought they deserved a seed but a poor showing against Hillcrest the night before the seeding meeting was bad timing.
8. Upset Watch, Part II – Records can be deceiving. That’s the case with Rogersville, which fell to 4-5 overall with a 55-36 home loss to Hillcrest on Tuesday night. That was perhaps Rogersville’s poorest showing of the season and may be an outlier for what is otherwise a respectable resume for a five-loss team. Rogersville has a pair of close losses to Ozark and played Glendale to a close loss on the road. Mtn. Grove figures to face a tough battle in the 9:30 p.m. nightcap on Day 2.
9. Semifinals prediction – Nixa and Ozark have played a time or two hundred, and I think they’re due for a date in the semifinals here. On the bottom of the bracket, give me the COC-Small vs. SCA matchup with Bolivar, after a close call against Willard in the quarterfinals, against Mtn. Grove.
10. Finals prediction – We were on the verge of renaming this tournament the Blue and Gold and Scarlet and Gray Tournament before last season. Nixa’s the best team top to bottom in this field and I think they reclaim the crown this year by defeating…. Mtn. Grove in the finals. This tournament means a lot to the Panthers, a chance to prove their selves against the Class 4 and 5 schools they never get to play, and I love the way they share the ball and have four-to-five shooters/ball-handlers on the floor at all times. This defies conventional basketball logic because Bolivar will have the best player on the floor in Brandon Emmert and (probably) the second-best player, too, in Conley Garrison. But I think the Panthers are a little deeper 3-through-6 and can match up athletically. Mountain Grove went toe-to-toe in the semifinals with Nixa last year and had a chance to win at the end. While Emmert may go for 30 and 15 this year, I’ll take the Panthers in an upset. Back me up, Mountain Grove!
Players to watch (alphabetical)
Not necessarily each team’s top player (although sometimes that’ll be the case), but rather players who will have a big impact on their team’s chances in the Blue and Gold.
Tony Brandt, senior, Greenwood – Brandt’s been a welcome addition for Greenwood as opposing teams do everything they can to take away Julius Walker. Brandt, a lefty, has added some needed playmaking ability at point guard and is a nice complement to guys like Walker and 3-point shooter Wesley Bergen.
Treye Collins, senior, Mountain Grove – The extra “e” in his name might as well stand for “eyes.” Some players have highlight-reel dunks, others have highlight-reel shooting ability. Collins’ specialty is passing. He has a full repertoire of pin-point passes he can dish out under any situation and is never gun shy. Collins sparks Mtn. Grove’s lethal transition game.
Braeden Combs, sophomore, Nixa – The emergence of the sophomore guard lifts Nixa to a different level. He’s a nice compliment to shooters Seth Viebrock and Evan Bergmann in the backcourt and shows flashes of being a good defender. Combs was named MVP of the MBCA Hall of Fame Classic at Parkview earlier this month.
Jack Ehrhardt, senior, Lebanon – The Yellowjackets take a 3-1 overall record into the Blue and Gold. That’s already half way to their 2015-16 win total (6). A lot of Lebanon’s success runs through its veteran point guard Ehrhardt and he produces in a lot of ways: 15.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 4.3 apg. Additionally, talented freshman Quenton Shelton (18.9 ppg) is a big part of Lebanon’s future.
Cole Gilpin, freshman, Fair Grove – As Garrett Kesterson makes a run at the state’s career 3-point record, Gilpin has helped keep the Eagles afloat after the graduation of Kyle Cavanaugh. Gilpin takes on a lot of ball-handling duties and, for a freshman, is good at creating his own shot. He gives the Eagles some needed playmaking ability.
Houston Johnson, senior, Willard – Healthy and able at last, Johnson’s finally displayed some of his talents early in the season for Willard. He averaged close to 20 points and eight rebounds through Willard’s first five games. If Willard’s to make win some games in this tournament – on the consolation side or otherwise – Johnson will be a big reason why.
Quinn Nelson, senior, Ozark – If the Blue and Gold had a 3-point shootout – and I’m a little surprised there isn’t one at this point – Nelson would be a big favorite to win it. He’s had a below-average (by his standards) start to the season shooting-wise, but may be coming around as evident by his 37-point performance in Tuesday’s 95-85 overtime win against Parkview.
Logen Plumb, junior, Reeds Spring – The Wolves are a junior-heavy team and Plumb, after posting modest numbers last year, is in the midst of a breakout season. He’s averaging 14 points and a team-high nine rebounds per game, doing so while shooting 68 percent from the field. He’ll likely draw a lot of the duties on Walker in Reeds Spring’s first-round matchup with Greenwood.
Connor Sechler, senior, Bolivar – Something about current (and past) Bolivar athletes taking up basketball again… Like Brandt, Sechler is playing basketball for the first time since his freshman year. He’s also found a starting role. Sechler, a Missouri State baseball commit, brings shooting and passing to the floor, both ideal traits in coach Robby Hoegh’s system.
Andrew Scott, junior, Rogersville – Scott has thrived in his new starting role for the Wildcats, who entered this season without their longtime coach (Rod Gorman) and a pair of backcourt lynchpins in Christian Brown and Marcus Gorman. Scott has played well under first-year coach Mitch McHenry, who loves the junior guard’s work ethic. Scott had 22 points in a close loss to Ozark in the Republic Tournament and 14 points in a home loss to Hillcrest earlier this week.