The last of the Division I boys basketball unbeatens fell last week when Laveen Cesar Chavez was beaten by Phoenix Carl Hayden.
Even before that, though, the landscape clearly deviated from 2011-12.
After Corona del Sol wrapped up a 4-0 mark in the prestigious VisitMesa.com Basketball Challenge last year, the Aztecs were 13-1 and favorites to capture the state championship. It held true, as Corona del Sol went undefeated the rest of the way and knocked off Cesar Chavez, 66-53, in the championship game.
This season, no favorite has emerged, and it’s quite possible none does before the state tournament.
The state’s Division I coaches were sent an email asking about this year’s title favorites, exchanging anonymity in return for candor, and the 20 responses received illustrate the perceived parity.
Four different teams were mentioned as the team to beat in Division I, while more than a dozen were chosen as possibilities to be in the mix come tournament time.
“I guess my waffling proves your point in that there will be some great battles in the playoffs and it’s anybody’s guess right now who will peak at the right time in February,” one said.
With the votes tallied up, here is a look at the top Division I contenders (as chosen by the coaches) as the stretch run beckons.
Cesar Chavez (16 coaches’ mentions; six votes as title favorite)
Record (entering Tuesday’s games): 15-1
Quality wins: Chaparral, Desert Mountain, North
Loss: Carl Hayden
Strengths: The Champions are a perennial power with one of the state’s best coaches in Gary Lee. Pablo Rivas was a force in last year’s title game run and is still just a junior. Cesar Chavez has an outstanding collection of athletes and its depth can wear teams out.
Weaknesses: While most of the division’s talent resides in the East Valley, Chavez plays most of its games against inferior Phoenix competition. There are some quality opponents, but the Champions don’t get as battle-tested as some of the other contenders. It hasn’t mattered much in recent years, but there’s always an asterisk next to Chavez because the team is generally an unknown until playoff time.
Outlook: The Champions were the most common name among stated favorites, and with good reason. Another deep playoff run would be no surprise. While the East Valley has largely dominated the largest classification in recent years, Chavez is the one out-of-area program which is always in the mix.
Mesa (14 mentions; six votes as title favorite)
Quality wins: Gilbert, Dobson, Marcos de Niza, Red Mountain
Losses: Hamilton, San Marcos (Calif.) Mission Hills
Strengths: Mesa has good balance and several players who can take games over for stretches. Jalen Jenkins can get into the lane against the majority of defenses, while D.J. Henderson, Dan Richards and Christian Harris are good outside shooters. Center Isaac Allen cleans up on the boards and is an imposing presence on defense. The guards are good at pressuring the ball, and few teams can match Mesa’s quickness and overall depth.
Weaknesses: Ball movement in the half-court is a problem. When Mesa can force missed shots on the defensive end and speed up the tempo, the game becomes much easier, but in a slow-down affair, the Jackrabbits sometimes struggle. Decision-making can sometimes haunt Mesa, as poor reads and silly fouls have held the team back from realizing its full potential.
Outlook: The Jackrabbits have the tools to be a contender with a nice mixture of skill-sets among its personnel. Right now, though, the individual pieces are greater than the sum. If Mesa improves at the offensive end it could become the team to beat in February.
Corona del Sol (13 mentions; four votes as title favorite)
Quality wins: Highland, Dobson, Hamilton, Gilbert Christian, Pinnacle
Losses: Gilbert, West Hollywood (Calif.) Pacific Hills
Strengths: The Aztecs move the ball very well offensively and generally have five players on the court who can score, which makes it tough for opposing defenses. Point guard Casey Benson might have more impact on his team than anyone else in the state, as he scores and passes at a high level. Benson and Siefker, the two returning starters from last year’s championship team, play very hard and it rubs off on the rest of the players.
Weaknesses: Corona del Sol had a huge front-line last year with Andrus Peat and Avery Moss, but now lacks interior presence. Cassius Peat is the top performer down low, but nearly all of Corona’s key players are between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-4. Teams with size can give the Aztecs problems in the post and on the glass. Benson is the go-to option on offense, but there isn’t a clear-cut No. 2. It hasn’t been a problem because the team’s balance has been helpful thus far, but if Benson struggles in a big game, will someone else step up?
Outlook: Corona del Sol was, at best, in the second tier among contenders to start the season after the departures of Peat, Moss and Arizona State-bound Calaen Robinson. Benson, though, has pushed his game up another level and the supporting cast has taken turns contributing at opportune times. Corona del Sol has used its constant activity to stay with bigger teams on defense and on the boards. If that continues to happen, the Aztecs could repeat.
Desert Mountain (Nine mentions; two votes as title favorite)
Quality wins: Paradise Valley, Mountain View, Hamilton, Mountain Pointe
Losses: Chavez, Chaparral
Strengths: The Wolves have a very fluid offense. Point guard Rolando Rhymes can penetrate defenses, and if they collapse, he has a wealth of shooters on the outside. Desert Mountain isn’t overly athletic but the players understand their roles on offense and defense. Mark Andrews is a big-time football recruit, and uses that natural talent down low as the team’s best forward.
Weaknesses: If opponents have a good shot-blocker inside, it allows the other perimeter defenders to stay on Desert Mountain’s shooters when Rhymes penetrates. Desert Mountain’s offense won’t get as many open looks against athletic teams with size, which could be a problem moving forward. Desert Mountain lost to Chavez by three and Chaparral by five, so it has been in every game thus far, but doesn’t have a big-time victory yet.
Outlook: It’s still wait-and-see mode for Desert Mountain. With the right matchups, the Wolves have the type of offensive flow and balance which can devastate opponents. But size is an issue on defense, and the lack of a dominant scorer who can create his own shot is a concern. Still, the decision-making and personnel on the team’s perimeter is solid, and hot shooting can make up for deficiencies in a hurry.
Other teams mentioned: Chaparral (8 coaches’ mentions): Pinnacle (7): Gilbert (4); Westview (2); Dobson (2); Brophy (2); Millennium (2); Mountain View (1); Red Mountain (1).