By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Here are some things to watch for in the Blue Bracket of the Blue & Gold Tournament.
The No. 1 Seed: Hartville (9-0)
Hartville has been as dominant as expected to start the season and enters with a 20-game winning streak. The Eagles have been boat racing whoever has stepped on the court with them, with Strafford being the only team to 1) score at least 50 points or 2) not lose by at least 20. The other thing about Brett Reed’s team is just how good they are defensively. That’s always important but even more critical in a tournament setting where legs get heavy and shots become more difficult to make. Seniors Ryce Piper and Cody Mahan – really this entire group – is battle-tested and they’ve won big games, specifically in JQH Arena. Joined by classmates Braden Branstetter, Eli Cook and Brady Ward, the “Fab 5” is eager to validate that they’re the best team in the Ozark’s, regardless of size and this is their first step towards proving that.
Top Contenders: No. 2 Nixa (5-0)
While Kickapoo continues to get the local love in Class 6, Nixa continues to just beat people decisively. Wins over Fayetteville (Ark.), Ray-Pec and Blair Oaks are impressive, but it’s how Nixa has done it that’s been most impressive. They’ve been absolutely relentless defensively and extremely efficient on the offensive end, doing it all without one of their most talented players in sophomore Kael Combs (injury). They’ve also been dominant, winning their last four games by 36, 21, 18 and 21. They have the perfect balance with veterans Jason Jones and Kaleb Wofford, as well as talented youngsters Colin Ruffin and Combs. Nixa isn’t just good enough to win this tournament, this is a team that will legitimately challenge for a state title. Also, Jay Osborne’s dominance in the event can’t be over looked. He’s a few wins away from them renaming it the Jay Osborne Classic. I’m sure this group will also have a chip on their shoulder from receiving the 2-seed.
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Best First Round Game(s): No. 8 Ava vs. Buffalo or No. 3 Parkview vs. Glendale
Ava and Buffalo is intriguing for a few reasons. First, these two have played in some epic football games over the last few years. Many of those faces are the same. Ava picked up the seed behind a 7-1 start, which includes a road win over Fair Grove. The Bears also have one of the top scorers in the event in Andrew Dalton. The only issue is that Buffalo is nearly a mirror image. The Bison have senior Jamen Smith (15 points, 6.3 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 3.3 blocks) who has been one of the area’s top players for years. Running mate Bode Abraham has been off to a great start as well. Buffalo’s losses are to a really good Spokane team and a loaded Skyline group. Both teams can score and have no problem with tempo. This could be a shootout.
Glendale and Parkview is a unique matchup. The Falcons went from seed contention to being put in the hat and locking up with SPS rival Parkview. Glendale has won 11 of the last 16 games with Parkview. Of that, six have been decided by five points or less. Both teams can score it, this should be another entertaining game. Don’t get it twisted, behind Carter Harrell, Glendale is good enough to make a run and has a favorable draw to do so.
Most Intriguing Potential Game: Hartville vs. Nixa
The “Battle of the Eagles” has happened three times since 2016, with Nixa winning all three. That’s to be expected with those matchups being Class 5 vs. Class 2. What wasn’t expected was the spreads. Those three games were decided by a total of 12 points and two came down to the final possession. Nixa would again be much bigger, but Hartville has the rare ability to take punches and keep moving forward. A Nixa vs. Hartville matchup for the Blue title will test the live stream’s ability to potentially handle thousands of viewers. This would also be the first real opportunity for someone to end Hartville’s streak.
Upset Special: No. 4 Skyline (7-0)
Skyline has done everything right to start the season. The Tigers are unbeaten and really haven’t been challenged, which includes an impressive 73-54 win over a really good St. Elizabeth team. This is a program that has won 37 of its last 40 games with the losses coming to Catholic, Kickapoo and Hartville in last year’s Class 2 state title game. Lawson Beem (18 PPG) gave Hartville 18 in that title game last year and now has a team that’s even more acclimated to big stages and bright lights. Bradyn Porter is averaging 19 a night, standout receivers Jaytin DeFreece and Zach Williams use that same athleticism on the hardwood and guards Kourt Cheek and Trey Swearingin give Skyline a defensive presence. Beating two of the last three teams that have beat them would be sweet revenge. Skyline is used to JQH Arena as well and they’re hoping this will be the first of two trips to the facility.
Player Who Could Ruin the Bracket: Zach Howell, Springfield Catholic
Last week I got a call from a coach in the Summit League asking if Howell was a Division One player. The short answer is you need an elite skill to play at that level and he has one in his ability to shoot and score the ball. The 6-foot-4 junior has been giving out bucket-getting tutorials throughout the first several weeks of the season, including a career-high 41 points against Central. The Irish aren’t just a one-man show either. Classmate Liam O’Reilly is an experienced combo guard and senior Will Squibb is a football standout that is productive on the basketball court. Maybe the best thing Catholic has going for them is the fact they’ve seen Hartville already, the championship of the Clever Tournament. The Eagles won by 23 but sometimes the best way to prepare for Hartville is seeing their pressure firsthand. Howell was held to 14 in that game, his lowest output of the season. He’s good enough to help Catholic get over the top and make a run.