The Red Mountain boys basketball team needed two wins in its final three games to help secure a spot in the 5A-I tournament.
As a No. 14 seed, a short stay seems in store for the Mountain Lions, who finished 11-16 on the season.
Then again, maybe not.
Red Mountain personifies this tournament, as parity and uncertainty reign.
The Mountain Lions will face off with defending champion North, the No. 3 seed in the tournament. The Mustangs are good enough to compete for the title, but they also could get knocked out in the first round. The teams played twice in the regular season, with North holding on for four- and five-point victories.
Red Mountain also beat No. 1 overall seed Buena in the VisitMesa.com Basketball Challenge in December.
“Once you get to this level and there are 16 teams left, they’re all going to be good,” Mesa coach Shane Burcar said. “Anything can happen.”
That seems to hold particularly true this season.
The Mountain Lions aren’t the only lower seed capable of pulling an upset. Underdogs Desert Vista, Hamilton, Cesar Chavez, Mesquite and Desert Ridge all pose a danger to the favorites in their first round matchups.
Mesquite played its first round foe, Mountain View, twice during the regular season. One game was ugly, as the Toros cruised to a 63-39 victory, But on Jan. 28, Mesquite only lost by two points to Mountain View.
Desert Ridge lost to Corona del Sol by nine points in December but didn’t have Parker Rasmussen, Sam Papa or Paris Clark, all of whom were playing football at the time. The Jaguars have won eight of 10 games heading into the tournament.
“It seems like it’s pretty wide open,” Hamilton coach Kevin Hartwig said. “It’s whoever can get hot for four games.”
North is 23-4 on the season, including regular season wins over Mesa and Brophy. They were expected to be down this year after losing Daniel Bejarano and others from the back-to-back title teams, but forward Alan Williams has led a surprisingly competitive cast.
In the East Valley, Mountain View, Mesa and Corona del Sol are the most likely teams to win it all, although sleepers like Brophy and Mountain Pointe certainly have the ability to make a run, as do the previously mentioned lower seeds.
Buena didn’t lose a power point game but didn’t face very tough competition and lost to Mountain View in addition to Red Mountain in tournament play.
Desert Vista plays Salpointe in the first round and then could face Buena for a berth in the semifinals. Although the Thunder would be on the road for both contests, a place in the Final Four is a definite possibility. Desert Vista has beaten several top teams this year, including Mesa, North, Mountain Pointe and Brophy.
“My team is tough to figure,” Desert Vista coach Dave Williams said. “I’m not saying they’re great, but I don’t think they understand where they’re at. It’s been two years since they’ve been in the playoffs, but they’re (in the hunt). I hope they understand that.”
Matchups could play a big role in some outcomes. Despite talent discrepancies, some teams have styles that work well against others.
Experience and home court advantage will always be factors as well.
Last year, top-seeded Mesa lost in the quarterfinals, but three of the other top-4 seeds made the semifinals. Only one double-digit seed — Corona del Sol — won a first round game.
This year seems more volatile.
“Early on the matchups will be huge,” Hartwig said. “You just match up better with certain teams a little better. It’s going to be intriguing.”