COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Bring out the bright lights. Tipping off at the Columbus Convention Center for the first time ever on Friday, the Division III district finals will have an NCAA tournament type feel at Battelle Hall.
Let's take a look at what to watch for later tonight.
Columbus Convention Center - 6 p.m.
Outlook: Meeting for the fifth time in three seasons, Johnstown and Grandview Heights are extremely familiar with one another. Unfortunately for the Bobcats, Johnstown has dominated this rivalry in the last three meetings, outscoring Grandview by 50 points in those games including a 46-37 victory in the district semifinals last season.
Friday's district final will offer much bigger implications, as both teams are gunning for its first title since 2016. Featuring programs that have a rich recent history and near identical records in the last three years, we see this early evening matchup being one that goes down to the wire.
Starting with Johnstown. The Johnnies are the Hilliard Bradley of the east, as first year coach Zach Ross has installed plenty of Norrisian principles to this program. Playing the same pack line defense that has helped the Jags go 71-6 in the last three years, Johnstown ran through the Licking County League this year and shut down the vast majority of teams it played this season.
Senior post Owen Hazelbaker is the focal point of both the offense and defense, as the 6-foot-6 West Liberty signee is a high IQ player with plenty of tools. Hazelbaker is not only Johnstown's top defender, rebounder, shot blocker and low post scorer, but he's also their best shooter. We greatly look forward to his matchup with Grandview junior Luke Lachey, who stands at 6-foot-6 and is as freakish of an athlete as you'll find at that size.
Outside of Hazelbaker, the Johnnies score by committee, but no secondary scorer is better than sophomore Jake Lusk. A physical 6-foot-3 forward who was all-state on the gridiron this past fall for the state runner-up Johnnies, Lusk is a bruising forward who will likely match up with Grandview senior Manny Day, who is a tough customer in his own right.
Hazelbaker and Lusk carry the majority of the load, while sophomore guard Gavin Foe has been a bright spot this season for the Johnnies. On the defensive end, junior Matt Sayer has been tremendous this season and should play a major role in Friday's game.
The key in this matchup will be pace. Johnstown prefers a slower tempo, holding teams under 40 points (you read that right) in 18 of 23 games. Coming in at 19-4, Johnstown's losses have come to South, Bishop Hartley, Granville and Columbus Academy - three of which are playing for district titles this weekend.
Every one of the aforementioned teams has quality guard play, with South, Hartley and Academy especially having athletic scoring guards which have given Johnstown problems this season. This could be where guys like Grandview junior Brian Collier, Lachey and Day can make an impact.
In its 56-35 home loss to Johnstown on Dec. 29, Grandview was without Lachey, which made a huge impact on both ends of the floor. Also in that game, Collier and Day scored all but one of the entire team's points. In order for Grandview to cut down the nets tonight, the Bobcats will need to spread out its offensive production and find a way to increase the tempo.
When giving up 50 or more points this season, Johnstown is 1-2. If Grandview can get to the 50 point mark, we see them having a shot at pulling off the upset. In Tuesday's district semifinal upset of No. 2 Worthington Christian, the Bobcats were scorching hot from the perimeter, knocking down nine threes and getting widespread production.
Juniors Charlie James and Lance Trares stepped up, as James knocked down three triples in the first half and gave the Bobcats a spark. Grandview knows what it will get out of Collier, who is as good of a pull-up jump shooter as any player in the area, but it will depend on what else Lachey, Day and the rest of the rotation can provide them.
Lachey, at 6-foot-6 with broad shoulders and a thick, muscular frame, is a great matchup athletically for Hazelbaker. Look for these two grown men to battle it out for 32 minutes.
On the wing, Lusk vs. Day is a great matchup. Day is more of a guard, as he can hit the pull up jumper and has the athleticism to score off the bounce.
We think the biggest difference will be made at the point guard spot where Collier will look to dominate for the second-straight game. Collier knocked down four threes on Wednesday, three in a row in a span of a minute that helped Grandview open it up on Worthington Christian in the fourth quarter.
We wouldn't be surprised to see this one swing either way. If Johnstown holds Grandview under 50 points, look for the Johnnies to claim its second district title in four years. If Grandview can surpass the 50 point mark, the Bobcats might just complete the magical run to the Bowling Green regional tournament.
Columbus Convention Center - 8:30 p.m.
Outlook: While the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5 seeds all went opposite of Harvest Prep at the tournament draw, No. 4 Columbus Academy accepted the challenge of possibly matching up with the Warriors in a district final.
That day has arrived.
Top-seeded Harvest Prep rolls into the Columbus Convention Center undefeated against all area teams and unbeaten in games played in Ohio this season. The Warriors have the best backcourt in Division III led by star junior CJ Anthony. Anythony is the best point guard that Columbus Academy will see all year, as the 6-foot guard is a physical specimen with an elite IQ, shot making ability and strength driving to the rim.
Anthony isn't the only stud in the backcourt, however. Senior guard Brandon Beavers is as good of a complimentary guard as you'll find in the area. The 6-foot-2 senior has big-time speed from end to end, can play both on and off the ball, is a knockdown shooter and very tough defender due to his length and quickness.
If that wasn't enough, Harvest Prep has other studs in 6-foot-4 senior Soul Hines, a big-time shot maker, and 6-foot-5 senior Elijah Glenn, the Warriors' top post threat. Off the bench, Harvest Prep is deep with length and quality guard play, which has made them a near impossible matchup for area teams this season.
At the Division III level, Wellington is the closest any opponent has played Harvest Prep, losing 63-54 on Jan. 18. Outside of that game, Harvest Prep has dominated just about every other opponent and hasn't played a close game since early January when it lost to Michigan City Marquette Catholic (Ind.) 57-56 on Jan. 3.
Facing that type of dominance, Columbus Academy will take on a buzzsaw under the bright lights at the Convention Center. Don't count this group out though, as the Vikings won its first MSL title since 2008 and have a deep group of seniors who believe in one another.
This team may not have a singular star, but they have a cast of senior contributors who have stepped up in important moments. Those seniors include defensive specialist Dorian Moultrie, stretch forward Chris Boyle, bruising post Dalyn DeCree and wing forward Hayden Compton.
Moultrie will likely be matched up with Anthony, which seems like the most logical match up for the stud junior. A Georgetown football commit, Moultrie is a stellar athlete and one of the best perimeter defenders that you'll find in the area.
Look for junior Carter Warstler to defend Beavers, as Warstler has enjoyed a bit of a breakout season for the Vikings as a secondary scoring option.
On the wing, Boyle could see either Glenn or Hines. At 6-foot-4, Boyle is a chiseled forward committed to Brown for football. Boyle moves very well laterally, can knock down perimeter shots and is a talented transition finisher.
DeCree and Compton are two tough forwards that do the dirty work for Academy. If the Vikings can find a way to control the tempo and keep Harvest Prep from getting out into transition, Academy could have a chance at hanging around long enough to pull the upset.
However, Harvest Prep is deeper and should be able to play at their preferred pace. With smart, experienced guards in Anthony and Beavers, the Warriors are favored tonight and should be in every game it plays before the state tournament.