After gazing at the first two-thirds of the 2008-09 prep boys basketball season it would be no surprise to see Gilbert Highland or Phoenix St. Mary's, the favorites in preseason, win the 5A-I championship.
It also wouldn't be a surprise if Mesa Mountain View, Mesa Red Mountain, Laveen Cesar Chavez or perhaps three or four other schools wind up standing tallest at the end.
The reason? Highland and St. Mary's have superior talent on paper. When they stride out onto the court for pregame warmups they look the part of favorites. The desire to play team basketball doesn't always take place when they get after it for 32 minutes on Tuesday and Friday nights. If that desire does kick in, one or the other wins the title this year.
The best I've seen Highland play was Dec.2 when it thrashed Chandler Basha. The Hawks spread the ball around and made a decent Basha team look very ordinary in a game they won by 11, but led by 26 points at one point in the fourth period. Five players scored between 10 and 16 points. Matt Carlino and Nick Johnson weren't the Hawks' leading scorer that night.
It seems that when Highland is in a tight game or down by a few points, the mindset is Carlino and Nick Johnson must save the day. Teammates Chris Johnson, K.C, Toolson, Dylan Roeder and Brett Lewis are better-than-average shooters. With more opportunities and with opponents more than wary of Carlino and Johnson, the others most certainly would end up getting good looks and quality shots given more chances.
In St. Mary's case, unlike many of the Jerryd Bayless days, the Knights have three or four scoring options. Too often it seems the Knights scorers want or need their points on a nightly basis. Scoring becomes a preoccupation.
Without a willingness to spread the ball around or at least be more patient in shot selection, hope springs eternal for the other teams chasing the Hawks and Knights.
History shows there are plenty of teams that win state titles with or without star-studded lineups.
A team that won a state title with far less talent than other teams had was the Gilbert Tigers in 2003. I have to admit, that was one of my favorite teams to watch.
That Gilbert team didn't wow with athleticism. They seldom dazzled. That wasn't their style. But they beat much more athletic teams, including Phoenix Desert Vista in the title game that year, 56-51. Then head coach Tom Bennett had a quote afterward that summed up his team.
"Individually we're OK, we're not great," Bennett said. "Together we're pretty good."
Only one player on that squad averaged in double figures scoring that year, a very solid offensive player in guard Ryan Toolson. The other starters - Tommy Hambicki, Mike Grothaus, Micah Van Hilsen and Sean Cayton - were consummate role players. They did their jobs most nights and were handsomely rewarded at the end.
Mountain View, which won three consecutive titles (2005, 2006, 2007), was star-studded offensively those seasons with Harper Kamp, Stephen Rogers and Kendall Wallace in 2005 and 2006. In 2007 Wallace, Kamp and Brendon Lavender were the scoring leaders. While those teams had firepower and those groups of players were double-figure scorers most nights, they were more often than not unselfish. Spread the ball around looking for the best shot possible. Didn't matter who took it.
That's the makeup of Red Mountain this season as well as other teams chasing Highland and St. Mary's. Red Mountain's victory over Tempe Corona del Sol last week was an illustration of the point as four of five starters tallied in double digits. The one that didn't - Chris Lewis - is the Mountain Lions leading scorer.
Highland and St. Mary's still are the cream of the crop in the 5A-I championship chase. The Hawks and Knights may still be able to get by on talent and their offensive standouts getting theirs (points). It's hard to bet against them.
But with upsets and close calls still taking place in January (St. Mary's loss to Gilbert Mesquite and a narrow escape from Tempe Corona del Sol and Highland losses to Chandler Hamilton and Phoenix North) a half-dozen other teams are good enough to put together a four-game run state tourney run to win it. They'll have to win with all hands on deck.