CONCORD – It’s postseason time for county high school basketball teams, and for the public schools their conference tournaments begin this week. Here are some thoughts on my first season covering Cabarrus County basketball:
SOUTH PIEDMONT 3A CONFERENCE (boys)
Favorite: It begins and ends with Cox Mill. While coach Jody Barbee has expressed frustration this season with the Chargers’ intensity for four quarters, particularly on defense, the fact remains they went 10-0 in conference play and won their SPC games by an average margin of nearly 28 points. Their smallest margin of victory in a conference game was a 16-point win over Northwest Cabarrus in late January. With the two best players in the county on the floor in Wendell Moore Jr. and Caleb Stone-Carrawell, anything less than a tournament title would be one of the shockers of the basketball season, if not the entire high school sports season in this county.
So which teams will be battling to face the Chargers in the tournament championship game?
Contenders: A.L. Brown seemed to have rebounded from a three-game losing streak in early January without any problem by winning seven of its next eight games and establishing itself as the second-best team in the conference. Then, the Wonders were surprised at home in their regular-season finale by Concord Friday, and now all bets are off on how they could fare
Interesting note on Concord: The Spiders are the only other SPC team besides Cox Mill to finish with a positive scoring margin in conference play this season (+3.1 points per game margin). I have a soft spot for this team, because they provided me with the most enjoyable game to watch this season, albeit in a loss at the buzzer at home to Mount Pleasant last month.
Outside of the Chargers, no team is entering the tournament with more momentum than the Spiders, winners of four in a row. Of course, that was after losing three in a row, so fans will have to decide which team will show up in the tournament?
As mentioned above, Northwest Cabarrus gave Cox Mill its closest game in conference play this season. Unfortunately for Northwest, it’s entering the tournament about as cold as anyone in the conference, having closed its season by losing six of eight. Offense has been a major issue for the Trojans this season. Over their final eight games, the Trojans reached the 70-point mark just once.
Others: I gained a tremendous amount of respect for Jay M. Robinson and Central Cabarrus as this season went on. Yes, these teams occupied the bottom of the conference standings, and, yes, there were nights when they simply didn’t have it and suffered some big losses. But while I didn’t see every game these teams played, the times I watched both the Bulldogs and Vikings, I never saw a team that didn’t put a solid effort on the court. Do not be surprised if either of these teams comes away with a victory in the tournament.
SOUTH PIEDMONT 3A (girls)
Favorite: Like the boys side, only one team should realistically be considered the favorite. Central Cabarrus went 10-0 in SPC play. And although its margin of victory in conference play was comparable to the Cox Mill boys team (+25.8 points), they did get some tougher tests along the way. And just like the Charger boys, the Vikings have arguably the two best players in the conference in juniors Ja-el Miller and Aniyah Tate.
(FYI: I’ve been dying to get the following in a story all season: Miller is the best passer in the conference, boys or girls. There’s simply no one better.)
Vikings coach Brandon Blalock hasn’t always been happy with his team’s defensive performances, and yet you look through the scores and see that only one team – Cox Mill – topped the 50-point mark on them in SPC play this season. While they are the clear-cut favorites, there is a team in this field that is dying for one more chance at the Vikings …
Contender: … and that team is Cox Mill. The Chargers’ only two losses in conference play this season came to the Vikings, by a combined total of nine points. An in-season coaching change, which brought in Lin Smithson, seems to have made a big difference in this team. If the Chargers bring the intensity during the tournament that they displayed in their two meetings with the Vikings this season, you will see them taking on Central for a third time.
Others: It’s hard to see any of the other teams in the SPC being serious contenders for a championship game appearance. Northwest Cabarrus nearly beat Cox Mill in late January, losing by just five points, but the rest of its season has been up-and-down to say the least. A.L. Brown did play better down the stretch of this season, including a win over Northwest earlier this month, and the Wonders did hang close with Cox Mill in their two meetings this season, losing by nine and six points, respectively.
Although it struggled most of the season, Concord did put up some good offensive efforts toward the end of the season. And while Jay M. Robinson should be better in seasons to come, with only two seniors on this year’s roster, 2018-19 has simply been a struggle for the Bulldogs.
Hickory Ridge (boys): Although I’m not sure it was a goal of his to finish in a certain place in the conference standings, I do know that Ragin’ Bulls coach Robert Machado was trying to get his team to an upper-half finish in the standings. And mission accomplished, as Hickory Ridge took fourth place in the Southwestern 4A Conference, with a 7-7 league mark. While it’s probably unrealistic to expect to see this team in the conference title game (they went 0-6 combined versus Independence, Butler and Myers Park), a semifinal appearance is not only a real possibility; it would probably be viewed as a disappointment if the Ragin’ Bulls didn’t reach that round.
Hickory Ridge (girls): This team dominated almost all competition it came up against this season. The Ragin’ Bulls went 12-2 in league play, winning all 12 games by double digits. They have the best player in the league in Nia Daniel and a rock-solid supporting cast.
But there are two blemishes on their conference mark. A pair of close defeats to regular-season champion Butler has provided Hickory Ridge with plenty of motivation in their tournament. Simply put, the Ragin’ Bulls want one more crack at the Bulldogs. They should get that chance in the tournament title game.
ROCKY RIVER 2A
Mount Pleasant (boys): Much like the Hickory Ridge girls in the Southwestern Conference, the Mount Pleasant boys suffered two conference losses this season to the same team. As solidly as the Tigers have played this season overall (and they have one of my favorite players to watch this season in sophomore Hunter Sloop), they have simply been smacked around by a great Forest Hills team, losing both meetings by 33 points each.
However, after speaking with coach George Walker following their last loss to the Yellow Jackets in early February, I know he and his Tigers want one more shot at the champs. This time, it would be up in Mount Pleasant’s gym.
Mount Pleasant (girls): The Tigers went 3-7 in conference play to finish fourth in the six-team Rocky River Conference. This is a young team, with just four seniors on the 15-player roster, so perhaps better things should be expected in seasons to come. That said, this team should reach the semifinals of the conference tournament, which would be a solid showing this season.