The crowning achievement of the McPherson High boys’ 2013-14 basketball season was, of course, the 57-40 victory over Topeka Hayden in the Class 4A Division I state championship game that gave the Bullpups their 12th title.
But in a game earlier this year, MHS coach Kurt Kinnamon asked his team at halftime what game it remembered the most from last year other than the victory over Hayden — and to a player it was Wichita North.
That was the Bullpups’ only loss of what was a glorious 23-1 season.
It is perhaps the most crushing defeat in Kinnamon’s 20 years as MHS head coach. Wichita North came into the Roundhouse with nothing to lose, threw a 24-6 first-quarter haymaker at the Bullpups and then fended off every MHS rally for a 73-63 victory. That sent the Bullpups into the tournament’s Sunshine Bracket for the first time since 2001.
That loss stayed with Kinnamon even after his team won the state title. It was the 50th year of the Invitational and with a strong field assembled, the Roundhouse was expected to be jammed to the rafters.
But North’s shocker was like releasing the Bubonic Plague. McPherson fans, not used to their team playing in the afternoon, stayed away in droves the final two days. Crowds were embarrassingly abysmal for Friday and Saturday’s sessions, somewhat damaging the tournament’s longstanding reputation of being the best midseason showcase in Kansas.
That loss, however, fueled the Bullpups the rest of the season as they did not lose again.
The sting of last year certainly is going to energize the Bullpups on Thursday, hopefully not too much though. They could be so heck-bent on revenge that they could come out too amped up for Hutchinson and allow the Salthawks to hang around.
Opening-day crowds for the Invitational have been modest at best in recent years, but with the arch-rival Salthawks coming to town the numbers could be better. A McPherson win and it will be an atrocity if the Roundhouse isn’t full on Friday when the Bullpups play Maize or longtime staple Wichita Heights. MHS has won 20 titles in the 50 years of the tournament and Heights is next with nine.
The last time MHS and Heights met, it was Perry Ellis’ junior year. The Roundhouse was as full as it had been in a long time and while the Falcons won the wildly entertaining game, it will be best remembered for the Bullpups’ Christian Ulsaker scoring 39 points in thoroughly outplaying Ellis, now at KU.
MHS Athletic Director Shane Backhus should be commended for putting together such a quality field. The opening game on Thursday would be worthy of a tournament championship game as Shawnee Mission East and Blue Valley West face off in a matchup of Kansas City powers.
I can’t wait to see Manhattan and Mill Valley because of all the uncertainty surrounding the game. While Manhattan is favored as it has only one loss, there are whispers Mill Valley has the potential to pull an upset.
Maize and Heights is a tossup in Game 3, while the Bullpups will handle Hutchinson in convincing fashion. The Salthawks have scored 50 points just once this year and they haven’t faced a defense quite like the Bullpups’.
Here’s how I see the final order of the tournament:
1. McPherson — The Bullpups were only so-so in their two games last week as they weren’t as stifling on defense and they were plagued by some foul trouble. I chalk it up to the malaise of AVCTL Division III dulling their intensity. MHS won’t have any trouble getting up for the next three days, especially after last year’s debacle.
2. Shawnee Mission East — Shawn Hair always brings a competitive product to town. The Lancers’ first-round game may actually be tougher than their semifinal game.
3. Wichita Heights — The Falcons’ 2011 team was one of the best to come into the Invitational in the last decade. They aren’t nearly as strong, but still have the quality athletes.
4. Manhattan — Not sure what to make of Manhattan. Tim Brooks is no longer the coach, but the Indians have exceeded everyone’s expectations.
5. Blue Valley West — Donnie Campbell’s team always has good size and plays strong defense. It all rides on the first-round game with Shawnee Mission East.
6. Maize — Chris Grill is back on the sidelines for the Eagles. They don’t have a lot of stars, but play well together.
7. Mill Valley — Traditionally first-time tournament teams struggle as it takes a couple of days to get used to the famed Roundhouse.
8. Hutchinson — I find it unfathomable that a school Hutch’s size has so little height and struggles to get out of the 30s.