Two rematches, one surprise and a legend

Dale Lawrence

The 2006 Boys State Basketball Finals take place this Saturday at Conseco Fieldhouse. This is the 96th finals overall and ninth in the class era. The day will feature two rematches from last year, one unexpected upstart participant and one team for the ages.

One of the rematches, surprisingly enough, is the big game, the 4A championship between Muncie Central and Lawrence North - surprising, because Muncie Central graduated their entire starting five from last year's state runner-up team. It is, above all, a tribute to the abilities of second-year coach Matt Fine, whose system has worked so brilliantly with two entirely different casts. Not that the Bearcats are without talent: Point guard Ben Botts and forward Terry Jenkins, in particular, are complete players and three-point specialists.

MC is a young squad that took its share of lumps early in the season, at one point losing five of six games. But they've been on a roll for the last two months, winning their five tournament games by an average of 16 points. They enter Saturday's contest 20-5.

Muncie's is a patient offense that emphasizes the three-point shot. Those long balls will need to be falling if the Bearcats expect to hang around very long against Lawrence North (28-0, winners of 44 straight games, 81-4 over the last three seasons).

Lawrence North is coached by Jack Keefer, but they are clearly Greg Oden's team. The consensus national player of the year, Oden is a man among boys, averaging 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks per game. With a stellar supporting cast, including All-Star lock Mike Conley, the Wildcats are the first team since the great Marion squads of the mid-'80s to have hoops-heads wondering if this isn't perhaps the best Indiana high school team ever. It's an unanswerable question of course, but consider this: With a win on Saturday, the Wildcats will tie the state record for consecutive victories, held by Crispus Attucks since 1956.

A loss to Muncie Central would amount to one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. On the other hand, the Bearcats have been here before, and are well aware that no one is expecting them to do anything but bow out graciously, so you would think they'll at least be relaxed. It's not much, but it might be the one teensy advantage they enjoy.

The 3A contest Saturday will feature perennial state power New Castle against perennial afterthought Jay County (both 20-6). In the previous 32 years, since it became a consolidation, Jay County had won 14 sectional titles, never anything beyond. At no point this season were they ever ranked. Though they finished the year 14-6, among those six losses were a couple of blowouts and one decision to a very bad team. It wasn't until the regional that they beat anyone who was very good - but once they started, it seems they couldn't stop. The Patriots use a balanced attack (six players average between six and 12 points), and have thrived lately at the free-throw line - going 60-73 (82 percent) in the regional and semistate.

On Saturday, they'll be up against a young New Castle team that many tagged pre-season favorites in 3A. New Castle is led by a pair of sharp-shooting guards, junior Chris Hahn and sophomore Chase Stigall. New Castle's last visit to the state finals was in 1984. They won the event in 1932.

The other rematch from last year will be at the 2A level, where Harding (from Fort Wayne) will again take on Forest Park (from Ferdinand, about 30 miles north of Kentucky). Harding's 17-9 record is deceiving, because their schedule is typically loaded. Among their opponents this season were North Central and 4A regional finalist Fort Wayne Snider, who they beat by three points in January. Though they graduated their leading scorer from last season, they return with significant experience, including a bit of size in 6-foot-7 James Humphrey. He will have his hands full Saturday, because Forest Park (24-3) has two of the best big men in the state in Clint and Brandon Hopf, cousins who look (and play) more like twins. The Sagarin ratings have this game listed as dead even.

The first game on Saturday will determine the class A champ: Tri-Central (23-3, from Sharpsville, south of Kokomo) vs. Hauser (24-2, from Hope, northeast of Columbus). Hauser is a solid if sometimes foul-prone squad, built around Bobby Jolliff, a slender 6-foot-8 center who will play D1 ball next year for Eastern Illinois. Tri-Central's big gun is 6-foot-1 Grayson Flittner, a dynamic player who leads the state in scoring at 29.3 points per game. If he is on (as he was two weeks ago, netting 48 points to upset Central Catholic in the regional), he will score seemingly at will from any point on the floor. However, he badly sprained his ankle before last week's semistate and needed his teammates to step up and gut out an overtime victory. If he's sufficiently healed by Saturday, this could end up being the most entertaining game all day. Neither school has ever made it this far in the tournament before.

The games begin in the morning with the class A contest at 10:30 a.m.

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