Old habits die hard.
I’ve become so engrained covering McPherson High’s boys at the state basketball tournament that I even attended the event that didn’t for one of the rare times include the Bullpups.
With an open date Thursday following the MHS girls’ opening-round victory over Topeka Seaman, I ventured back to Emporia to see just how strong 5A is on the boys’ side as all season the consensus has been this is a watershed year for the class with an enormity of depth from top to bottom.
I’ll just say this — 4A ain’t no 5A. Not even close, at least for this year.
Not that diminishes what the Bullpup boys accomplished each of the last five years at Salina by making the state title game, but 5A is an entirely different animal.
Broadcast partner Jim Joyner and myself took in the first three games Thursday and a case could be made for each of the winners of those games being crowned the champion on Saturday.
Maize, a one-time participant in the McPherson Invitational, is undefeated and the No. 1 seed. After watching the Eagles play, my thought was the tournament is over and go ahead and give them the championship.
Caleb Grill, son of coach Chris Grill, is the best player in the class and stated his case with authority with 23 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 assists. And the Eagles are more than just Grill as five players in all scored in double figures as they were all over St. James Academy, which lost 83-58 despite making 12 of 23 3s.
Next up was an Andover Central team that McPherson led by 7 points at the half in Game 2 of the season before losing, as top player Jake Alexander missed all but 2 minutes of the game with an ankle injury.
The Jaguars came out firing in the first quarter against Pittsburg of the Southeast Kansas League. Braden Belt and Xavier Bell were throwing in shots from everywhere and Easton Leedom was working on a performance that nearly garnered him a triple-double.
The Purple Dragons were never really in the game despite making 12 treys.
This was a far more impressive Andover Central team than we saw at the Roundhouse as Jesse Herrmann’s club obviously has hit its stride. Bell (28), Belt (22) and Leedmon (17 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists) combined for 67 points as it was another track meet, 78-61.
Maize and Andover Central in most years would be a championship game, but it’s just a semifinal today right after the McPherson game. I like Maize as it’s simply more physical.
Then came Bullpup conqueror Bishop Carroll, which is the defending champion. And if you thought the Golden Eagles were good against the Bullpups, they ramped it up several notches Thursday.
Carroll stormed to a 28-7 first-quarter lead and while two-loss Bonner Springs was outrageously athletic, the Golden Eagles’ razor-sharp execution carved up the Braves for layup after layup. Carroll had an amazing 22 assists and shot 55 percent from the field. Its only flaw was 25 fouls, but its depth made up for it as subs Gunner Lynch (19 points) and Luke Larkin (7 points, 9 rebounds) were stellar. The other downer was that muscular big man Cade Becker was lost with a knee injury and may be done for the week.
I didn’t see the finale, but Basehor-Linwood was huge in warming up and after having a close game with Salina Central for three quarters, it outscored the Mustangs 18-1 in the fourth quarter for a 60-46 win. This is a physical bunch with good balance as four players hit for double figures.
I like for Carroll to advance over Basehor-Linwood to set set up a Sedgwick County classic.
5A is the real deal. After watching all the teams, I believe the Bullpups were ranked appropriately as they hovered around the No. 10 mark most of the year. The teams at Emporia all could knock down the 3s. Just look at the totals from each game — 18 combined from Maize-St. James, 23 from Andover Central-Pittsburg, 15 from Carroll-Bonner Springs and 15 from Basehor-Linwood-Salina Central.
This was the first time I had attended 5A since 2011 when the Bullpups were winning the championship. The class has come a long, long way since then. When you look at the schools, they’re mostly from the Kansas City or Wichita area. If MHS stays in 5A for the coming years, it is going to be a small fish in a very big pond.