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The Blackwell Blog

Boys basketball playoff primer

At last, on Thursday afternoon, they arrived, the precious information that will help us endure the next few weeks of perils all around us - Section III boys basketball playoff time!

A version of them can be found here, but for those too busy with their actual lives to try and look at brackets broken up into two sheets of paper, fear not. We're here to explain the stuff. And man, there's a lot to explain.

Starting in Class D, with the smallest schools, does not mean we are starting small with the storylines and building up to a Class AA climax. Far from it.

Mainly this is because Section III has produced the last two state Class D champs - New York Mills in 2011 and Sackets Harbor in 2012. And both of them enter this narrative very closely tied.

Mills is the no. 2 seed after a pair of late-season defeats ended a 50-game (!) undefeated march through Center State Conference foes. With Jake Kehrli healthy and Nick Cominale a constant shooting threat, the Marauders are more perimeter oriented than the Fred Russ and Matt Welch-led teams of seasons past. But they're still quite good. Mike Adey sees to it.

That said, look at the path Mills has to take if it gets past Copenhagen. A possible quarterfinal with Oriskany, who just beat them on Monday. Then a potential semifinal with either of two powers - no. 3 Faith Heritage, who has stood well against Class C sides all year led by Luke List, or, yes, Sackets.

Don't be fooled by that no. 6 seed. Jeff Robbins' Patriots are rolling now after a late December-early January slide, winners of seven straight and quite confident. How good would a Faith-Sackets quarterfinal be in that intimate Saints gym in the Valley?

Yes, there is a top half of the bracket, too. McGraw has the no. 1 spot and has won 14 straight, but could start with a Poland side that ended the Mills CSC win streak a couple of weeks ago, should the Tornadoes get past sneaky-good Rome Catholic. Lyme, good enough to be in the state top 10, is a dangerous no. 5 seed and has to be favored against Madison, Brookfield and Cincinnatus, right?

Class C split. It had to, with 20 teams qualifying, and in all truth, 10 of them have reason to think that they can make the C-1 or C-2 finals. It's that deep, and that good, of a field.

Carson Murphy pushed Mohawk to the no. 7 state ranking and the top seed in C-2, awaiting Sandy Creek or Weedsport. And what a 4-5 game it is, too, with West Canada trying to restore its 2008 and 2010 mojo, but having to do so against the scoring machine that is 2,000-point man Will Thomas and Morrisville-Eaton.

Waterville went from .500 nobody to 17-1 power this winter, good for a no. 2 seed in C-2 as it gets Port Byron or Onondaga, while Fabius-Pompey and LaFayette get together in the quarterfinals, the Falcons going as far as Stewart Wright (who has averaged better than 22 a game this season) will take them.

For a year, Beaver River has waited for a second chance after dropping last year's sectional final to Cooperstown. Not wasting it, Alex Hall and the Beavers have roared to 17-1, a no. 5 state ranking and the favorite's chair in Class C-1.

From its top seed, Beaver RIver will get Herkimer or South Lewis - and who knows, it could be Beavers vs. Cooperstown again as, with a new cast (and getting rid of a bad nickname), Coop draws Little Falls in the 5-4 quarterfinal.

Consistency, thy name is Tully. Doesn't it seem like the Black Knights are 15-3 every year? Dan Morse and friends first will get Sauquoit Valley or Mount Markham and must be wary of Pulaski or Thousand Islands, especially if the no. 3 seed Vikings continue to see Quincy Aubertine do just about everything, including score a lot.

Now there's Class B, where 14 sides are ready to go, just like the girls. South Jefferson and Westhill are the top two seeds, just like the girls. A Bassett is part of the Spartans' recipe here, too, as Tom, son of girls coach Pat, is the leading South Jefferson light.

One slight difference from the female side, though - the Warriors don't have to prove anything with two state final four trips and a state title (in 2010) in the recent past, while the Spartans have a lot of skeptics to answer.

It won't take long, either, since South Jefferson's first game in the quarterfinals is either Bishop Grimes or Phoenix - the Cobras a pre-season favorite bursting with talent, the Firebirds a major overachiever with nice scoring balance.

From its no. 4 slot, fast-closing Skaneateles has to like its position, starting with Ilion and, then, Sherburne-Earlville or Holland Patent. Sounds like a very good Laker formula to get to the semifinals.

Westhill will also get a real hurdle right away, whether it's Utica-Notre Dame (who played Class A and AA teams all season) or Solvay, who took off in the second half behind Nick Filippi and John Savo.

Even if the Warriors get through that, they have to be wary of that no. 6 seed, Syracuse Academy of Science. The Atoms split (yeah, bad pun) two close ones with Westhill this winter, and might find first-round opponent Cazenovia more of a challenge than no. 3 Clinton, whose schedule was easier than South Jefferson had. Those maroon-clad Warriors first face Adirondack.

Now in Class A, we could pretend to focus on surprising top seed Carthage, winners of 15 in a row, full of guys who can shoot from deep all night, and look out if they make them. We could mention that the Comets will get ESM or Oneida, while no. 3 seed Cortland, who did an amazing job for first-year coach Jeremy Milligan with a lineup anchored by Josh Gutchess and Isaiah Prior, also sits back and awaits Indian River or Fowler.

But let's face it, the fun is elsewhere. We already know that eternal rivals New Hartford and Whitesboro will get it on in a delicious 4-5 quarterfinal. Yes, the Spartans have won both times this year and can shoot the lights out (ask West Genesee or Utica Proctor), but that won't matter one bit if the Warriors win here, when it counts.

Even that, though, pales to what will happen if J-D passes first-round test Mexico. That's right, the Red Rams will meet Bishop Ludden. In the quarterfinals. Every other playoff game will pale next to this summit meeting of programs with eight state titles between them.

You knew Pat Donnelly had to love (okay, maybe not) seeing his Gaelic Knights, reigning state champs, once no. 1 in the state this season, with all the main pieces (Dan Kaigler, Ben Hackett, etc.) back, as a no. 2 seed, likely having to face J-D right away and, even passing that, a possible semifinal with a Cortland side that pushed them hard in their only meeting in January.

Oh well, Ludden, might as well earn it, and Donnelly knows that others not named Kaigler or Hackett will have to step up. J-D, sans the superstars (Coleman, Cavanaugh, Triche) of the past, can still make a run if Jafar Kinsey heats up and the 3-pointers fall. Make a run this time and stun Ludden, and it's Bob McKenney's best coaching job, hands (or suspenders) down.

At last, we reach Class AA, just a 10-team side, and Corcoran got in despite a 7-11 mark to make it 10, but at this early glimpse it's difficult to imagine a scenario other than no. 1 seed F-M and no. 2 seed Henninger battling in the Carrier Dome March 3 for the big prize.

All season long, the Hornets and Black Knights stood out from the AA muddle. F-M did so with that 1-3-1 zone Tom Blackford loves so much and guys who can deal (Jake Wittig), drag down boards (T.J. Wheatley) or just plain score a lot (John Schurman, Tomer Nesher, even Louis Avellino). The Hornets won that only meeting with Henninger, 59-51, at home in mid-January.

Henninger had a tougher task with so many new starters. Mad credit to Erik Saroney for getting Romero Collier to instantly prove himself the latest in a long line of great Black Knights point guards. Collier spreads it out, too, as Marquane Silver, Ahmad McKinney, Keith Tyson II, Frank Vigliotti and Chris Hicks can all take over when needed.

Who can stop these two? There's Nottingham, a tough, quick and exciting no. 3 seed, who must first get past up-and-down West Genesee. Or there's reigning champ Utica Proctor, the no. 4 seed, much improved later in the season (the Raiders beat Henninger Feb. 2 and nearly knocked off a Wittig-less F-M a week later), who hosts a no. 5 C-NS side it just beat on the Northstars' home floor.

Yet the theater almost tells us it has to conclude with Henninger, so familiar with big games on big stages, trying to deny F-M what it has waited 58 years for. Insert your own joke about tennis, cross country or playing too many hockey games at your own peril in the presence of a Hornets fan.

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