COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Columbus will be heaven for hoop heads starting on Thursday with both the NCAA tournament and Ohio high school state tournament running concurrently. While we will save NCAA coverage for later in the weekend, let's take a look at our first of three state tournament previews for the Central Ohio programs competing for titles - starting with Olentangy Liberty.
Welcome to the big time, Patriots. For the first time in school history, Olentangy Liberty is going dancing at the Schott. The Patriots completed the improbable by knocking off both Pickerington powerhouses in the regional tournament to get here.
If that wasn't difficult enough, they now get to compete in a Division I field that includes three private school powerhouses from different parts of the state that have combined for 13 state championships and 32 trips to the final four since 1996!
We will really find out if this Liberty team is destined for greatness in a span of about 24 hours as the Patriots tip off against Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary on Friday at 8 p.m. at Value City Arena on the campus of The Ohio State University.
Friday, March 22 - 8 p.m. (OSU)
Outlook: Both Liberty and STVM are here for the first time ever, as the Akron powerhouse previously played in smaller divisions before competitive balance moved the Irish to Division I prior to this season. This game should be highly competitive, as both programs are capable of playing in any tempo and are well coached units that will take care of the ball and make shots from all over.
We are really excited about the wing matchup between the seniors Roderick and McDay, two Division I level talents that have led their teams this far. McDay, who began his career at Groveport, is an Ohio University commit that is shooting 53.3 percent from three this year.
Surrounding McDay are stud sophomores Wilson and Branham. Branham, who played middle school ball at Ridegeview MS in northwest Columbus, is enjoying a great sophomore campaign and will figure to have a big impact in this game.
The Irish have plenty of size with seven of its top nine rotation players standing at 6-foot-3 or taller. Depth and experience is the strength of this team, as juniors Marcus Johnson and Isaiah Ingol each average five points off the bench, while senior Darius Cone is STVM's top reserve scorer at 7.5 points per game.
Four of STVM's starters average double figures, as senior guard Chris Painter rounds out the quartet at 10 points per game. The backcourt of McDay, Wilson and Painter combine to average more than 12 assists per game, as this group really knows how to move the ball and create great looks.
The Irish have won 10-straight district titles and have played in six of the last seven state tournaments, while having eight state championships under its belt since 1984. Oh, and a guy by the name of LeBron James once played there, too.
For Liberty, the Patriots have a steep challenge but it's not entirely impossible. Liberty might just have the best player in the entire tournament in Roderick. The 6-foot-5 senior wing comes in averaging a tournament-best 28 points per game, while adding 7.8 rebounds and just over three assists per contest.
Roderick combined to score 50 points in the regional tournament, providing Liberty with the scoring it needed in a stiff challenge against Pickerington Central in the regional semifinals. The senior wing is looking to prove that he can not only play, but provide an impact on the high-major level and there will be no better showcase than Friday.
Liberty will need more than just Roderick to show up, however, don't be surprised if he puts together a masterful showing that is enough for the Patriots to advance. The OCC-Buckeye champs have a balanced scoring rotation, as the senior forward Nakasian is the team's second leading scorer at 16 points per game. Nakasian is shooting 42.7 percent from three and is a powerful slashing wing that has been highly efficient during this tournament run.
Senior forward Mitch Kershner is the x-factor among the senior standouts, coming in at 9.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, while providing the Patriots with a steady three-point shooting threat.
Liberty puts up the three ball at a high rate, as they have five guys who have made at least 24 threes on the year. Sophomore guard Henry Hinkle, Liberty's top player off the bench, has been an efficient scorer this year, shooting 44 percent from three, 52.8 percent on two-point attempts and a team-best 80 percent from the free-throw line.
Hinkle was the MVP in the regional final win over Pickerington North, coming in and scoring 14 points, while impacting the game on both ends with his ability to handle and pressure the ball. Hinkle will have a full work load with a stellar STVM backcourt, however, the sophomore guard is playing with sky-high confidence right now after Saturday's regional showing.
The key for Liberty will be handling the first wave from the Irish. The Patriots cannot afford a sluggish start like it had against Pickerington North when it fell behind 8-0 in the first three minutes. If that happens against the Irish, it will be tough sledding for Liberty as coach Dru Joyce's team is extremely difficult to rally against.
A big night from Roderick combined with timely threes from Nakasian, Kershner and Hinkle will be what Liberty needs to overcome an Irish team that will be playing for a spot in the state championship for the fourth-straight season.
Saturday, March 23 at 8:30 p.m. (OSU)