COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It’s that time of year again. With the Division II and III sectional tournaments tipping off all across the area on Monday, it’s time we break down each bracket. Let’s take a look at what’s about to happen in Central Ohio.
The crown jewel of the City League, South is in the midst of an insane three-year run where the Bulldogs are 67-8 with two City titles. This year’s team might just be the best yet, as South flexes a deep collection of big-time guard talent and its signature elite defense. The Bulldogs can win in any tempo you play them in, as South can get up and down as well as anyone while being disciplined enough to feel comfortable in a slow down half court type of game. Senior guard Tre Watkins leads a young team that is seeing juniors like Taquan Simington, Trevell Adams and Marcus Johnson grow right before their eyes. Watkins has deferred offensively in recent games, which has helped grow the confidence of his teammates tremendously. South is getting big-time production from guys like Simington, Adams and senior Alvin Byrd, which makes them really difficult to beat when Watkins is in the zone as well. With all of those factors in play, South is the best Division II team in Central Ohio and will be a threat to reach the state tournament.
Sitting at 16-3 heading into the tournament draw, Jonathan Alder was rolling as the Pioneers locked up a two seed and were in play to win the Central Buckeye Conference. In the three games since, Alder has yet to win, falling to London (CBC title game) and Hilliard Darby on the road, while Bishop Watterson came into Plain City and left with a 40-31 win and a $20 Der Dutchman gift card. Despite being the two seed, Alder will have two tough matchups in the sectional tournament with No. 16 Licking Valley and No. 14 Buckeye Valley, two teams with good guard play and enough size to compete with the Pioneers on the glass. If Alder gets to the district semifinals, a matchup against Morgan Safford and Hartley awaits, which could be very challenging. If Alder is to reach Ohio Dominican for the district finals, we could see a rematch against DeSales. The teams have split the last two meetings, as Alder won on a controversial buzzer beater in the last meeting on Feb. 5 while DeSales ended the Pioneers’ season in the sectional finals last year. Alder is good enough to beat everyone in the bracket, but has also shown signs lately that they could lose to anyone as well.
Bouncing back from a 1-7 CCL campaign last year to a share of the conference title this year, DeSales is back to being a legitimate threat in Division II. Three years removed from a trip to the regional finals, DeSales is looking to get back to its winning ways in the tournament this season. The Stallions will run into familiar foes to get there, as a matchup against No. 5 Granville (DeSales beat them earlier in the year) could happen in the district semifinals, while the Stallions could see No. 2 Jonathan Alder in a district final, roughly a year after ending the Pioneers’ season on their home floor in the sectional finals. DeSales has talent at every position, as the trio of senior Kayin Derden, junior Kobe Righter and sophomore Desmond Watson has paced the Stallions this season. DeSales will need those three to perform to their potential in order to win its first district title in three years. A district final matchup against No. 4 Bishop Hartley could also be intriguing, as Morgan Safford and the Hawks ruined DeSales’ senior night, while also knocking them out of contention of winning an outright CCL title. A rematch between those two programs on a big stage could be highly entertaining.
Bishop Hartley has been a victim of injury problems to two senior starters, which has led the Hawks to underachieve this season at 12-10. Despite their struggles, the Hawks still have Division II’s best player in Morgan Safford and will be a threat to reach the district finals. However, Safford won’t be able to do it all, as someone outside of the 6-foot-4 senior scoring machine will have to step up. The Hawks will likely have to take down No. 10 Eastmoor in the sectional finals before a potential matchup against No. 2 Jonathan Alder in the district semifinals. Alder plays some of the best team defense around, however, Safford is good enough to put Hartley in a position to win without significant help. In order for Hartley to reach the district finals for the second-straight year, the Hawks will need someone like senior Ryan Heuser or junior Kylan Kortokrax to emerge into a reliable secondary scoring option outside of Safford. Putting together a Division II district player of the year type season, Safford does not want it to end without a district title.
Winning an LCL division title, Granville is in the midst of a breakout season where the Blue Aces established themselves as a dominant defensive team. Granville can now prove that they are more than just bullies in the LCL by making a run to the district finals. The route is not going to be easy, though, as Granville will be challenged from the opening tip. The Blue Aces, despite being a top five seed, will not play an opponent outside of the top 10 (if London beats Hamilton Township) at any point in the district tournament. That path, coupled with a potential rematch against No.3 DeSales, who controlled Granville in a regular season win, will make things very difficult at all stages in the tournament. With a cast of talented players who all play for each other, Granville has the potential to get it done, but they will need to be able to score against length and athleticism, two things they will likely face in each round of the tournament.
For the second-straight year, Beechcroft won a City League North division title, splitting its two meetings against Northland. While the Cougars had a rough start to the year at 2-3, Beechcroft greatly bounced back by going 15-2 in its final 17 games. Senior post Na’elle Simmons has become a double-double machine, while his younger cousin and freshman standout Jaylen Simmons has evolved into a reliable secondary scoring option. After winning City and district titles a year ago, Beechcroft is a program that exudes confidence these days, as the Cougars feel they are more than capable of not only reaching a district final, but winning when they get there - even if top-seeded South is the opponent.
Winning a share of the CCL title for the second-straight year, Bishop Watterson enters the tournament with great momentum after going on the road and handling Jonathan Alder last week. The downside though is that the Eagles jumped into South’s bracket and will have to upset the top-seeded Bulldogs if they can reach a district final. One of just three active coaches in the area with a state championship, Vince Lombardo is elite at maximizing talent, especially in the tournament. Failing to reach a district final in every season since it was state runner-up in 2014, Bishop Watterson can change things this year if the Eagles can overcome a potential matchup against No. 6 Beechcroft in the district semis. Senior guard Zach Sawyer is good enough to will the Eagles to the district finals, however, that likely will be as far as Watterson can go.
London might just be the lowest seeded 20 win team that we’ve seen since we started covering the area in 2013. The Red Raiders won an outright CBC title, taking Jonathan Alder down on the last night of league play. London may be young with only a handful of seniors, however, the sophomore tandem of Trey Woodyard (6-foot-5) and Jainaz Cameron (6-foot-6) has made all the difference this season in helping London have its best record in decades. London will be challenged directly out of the gate with a tough matchup against No. 13 Hamilton Township before potentially heading to No. 5 Granville in the second round. In order for London to get to a district final, they will likely have to beat two top five seeds with a potential matchup against No. 3 DeSales awaiting in the district semis. Area coaches clearly showed that they don’t believe in London being an elite team with the seed the Red Raiders were given. London can prove that they were all wrong with a run to a district final.
All season long, Bexley has been the best of the third tiered teams in Division II and are looking to shock the world after a disappointing end to its season a year ago. The Lions are a senior laden bunch led by Ryan Callahan and will be ready for whoever awaits them. A sectional final against the winner of No. 11 Linden-McKinley and No. 12 Centennial will be challenging, as both teams have plenty of length and athleticism - two things that Bexley lacks. However, Bexley has great guard play and senior leadership, which should help them advance to the district semifinals where they will likely take on top-seeded South.
The record doesn’t look good at all, however, Eastmoor played a gauntlet of a schedule and is ready to make noise in the tournament. The Warriors have a deep group of seniors and plenty of guard talent to shake things up. Eastmoor will host No. 22 River Valley in the sectional semifinals before a potential eastside clash in the sectional finals against No. 4 Bishop Hartley. The last time Eastmoor lost a game before the district finals was in 2016 at Hartley, coincidentally enough in the sectional finals. Hartley has struggled against inferior teams plenty of times this season, as Eastmoor could have the potential to pull off an upset if the Warriors can force the ball out of Morgan Safford’s hands. With two trips to the state tournament under its belt since 2015, Eastmoor is proven in the tournament and will be a tough out as always.
Despite being swept by Linden-McKinley in the regular season, Centennial was seeded one spot ahead of the Panthers, which gives the Stars home court advantage in the sectional semifinals. Beating a team three times in the course of a single season is a tall task, which leads us to believe that Centennial will have a great shot to overcome Linden the third time around. The Stars have the best post player in the division in Myles Martinez and should run everything through its 6-foot-7 senior if it wants to advance to the district semifinals to take on South. Before then however, Centennial will have two challenging matchups in Linden and No. 9 Bexley.
Jumping right on Centennial. Linden is looking for the three-game sweep in the sectional semifinals. There may not be another team in the division with more length than the Panthers, as Linden is big and athletic up front. However, inconsistent guard play has been a major crutch for Linden this year with the Panthers struggling to take care of the ball in its 10 losses. Linden has played some of the elite teams in the division close and will have plenty of confidence heading into a road matchup against Centennial. If Linden can get by the Stars, they will face No. 9 Bexley in the sectional finals. Linden will have a size advantage in that game, however, Bexley defends at a high level on the perimeter, which could spell for some major problems if the turnover bug comes back to bite the Panthers.
After spending several years at the Division I level, the Rangers drop down to D2 and could be a spoiler for London in the sectional semifinals. Hamilton Township was as hot as anyone to start the year, going 7-1 in its first eight games. Since then, the Rangers have sputtered,going 4-10 and losing five of its last six games. Despite that, the Rangers match up decently well with London and have the guard play to make things interesting. Competing against the top teams in a loaded MSL-Buckeye division, Hamilton Township is battle tested and could serve a potential upset in round one.
Harvest Prep received top seed treatment with the No. 2, No. 3, No. 5, No. 6, No. 8, No. 9 and No. 10 seeds going opposite of them. The Warriors won’t face a team with a single digit seed until the district finals, as a potential matchup against No. 11 Amanda-Clearcreek in the district semifinals is as tough as it will get for Harvest Prep before the Columbus Convention Center. With a primarily senior led team minus stud junior point guard CJ Anthony, Harvest Prep will be the favorite in every game it will play until the state tournament. Going to the Athens regional once again, Harvest Prep feels really good about its chances to play in a fourth state tournament since 2014.
No team in Division III has improved as much as Worthington Christian has in the last year. While the Warriors are still one of the youngest teams anywhere in the area, the Warriors have been as good as anyone outside of Harvest Prep in D3. Much of that has to do with freshman guard DJ Moore who was named the conference player of the year, an honor that no freshman in the last decade before him had earned. With the majority of top 10 seeds jumping into their bracket, Worthington Christian will likely have a district final type matchup against No. 6 Grandview Heights in the semifinals before a potential matchup against No. 3 Johnstown in the district finals. No game will be easy outside of the sectional tournament, however, no team other than Harvest Prep has a guard better than Moore. If the Warriors can continue to get great production from juniors Nakimba Mullins, Derrick Hardin and sophomore Tyler Kindberg, Worthington Christian should have a great chance to win a district title.
An otherwise mega successful first year for coach Zach Ross ended in minor disappointment as Johnstown went on the road and saw its offense completely stall out at Bishop Hartley to end the regular season. Johnstown can get back to its winning ways in the tournament, as a favorable route to the district finals is ahead of them. A sectional final matchup against Liberty Union could be tricky, but Johnstown should be able to prevail. In the district semifinals, Johnstown could see either No. 5 Fairbanks or No. 8 Pleasant, two teams with enough size to compete up front with the Johnnies. Senior forward Owen Hazelbaker is one of the very best players in the area and might have to be a little more selfish than usual to lead the Johnnies to a district title.
The champions in the vaunted MSL-Ohio, Columbus Academy enters the tournament with great momentum. The Vikings won their second conference title in 30 years, as Academy’s group of seniors truly made history this season. It will all be for naught if the Vikings can’t make a deep run in the tournament. In order to get to a district final matchup against Harvest Prep, Academy will be challenged in the two games before that, as likely matchups against No. 7 Africentric and No. 12 Wellington could be on the docket. A team without one superstar, Academy’s rotation has taken turns being the hero in some of its biggest games. We could see someone like senior Chris Boyle stepping up and being the go-to guy in a huge moment, as Academy felt comfortable enough to jump into Harvest Prep’s bracket, as they were one of just two teams seeded 2-10 to go the way of the Warriors.
The champions in the Ohio Heritage Conference, Fairbanks is one of the hottest teams in the area. Coach Justin George has led the Panthers to 18 wins, as Fairbanks swept West Jefferson and only suffered suffered losses to top seeded Jonathan Alder and Worthington Christian. Senior wing Cross Hackathorne has been a breakout player this winter and is looking to lead Fairbanks deep in the tournament. In a loaded Columbus 1 bracket, Fairbanks will be challenged from the opening tip against No. 10 Bishop Ready in the sectional semifinals. If the Panthers knock off Ready, they will likely host No. 8 Pleasant in a game that will be as challenging as any sectional final. If Fairbanks can hold off the Spartans, then another difficult matchup awaits in No. 3 Johnstown. The route to a district title will include knocking off four top 10 teams and two of the top three seeds in the tournament.
While midseason injuries derailed Grandview Heights in late December and early January, the Bobcats have gotten back on track by going 9-2 since Jan. 9. With 6-foot-6 junior Luke Lachey back in the lineup, Grandview’s only losses have come to Worthington Christian and Columbus Academy. Splitting the regular season series with Worthington Christian, Grandview Heights can get a rubber match against the Warriors in the district semifinals. Before that though, the Bobcats will have to take down No. 18 Heath and No. 9 West Jefferson in the sectional tournament. Each matchup presents its own challenges, as Heath has quality size in standout 6-foot-7 freshman Brandon McLaughlin, while West Jefferson has terrific perimeter play. A team that is very limited offensively outside of its trio of Lachey, junior Brian Collier and senior Manny Day, Grandview is going to have to get production from the rest of its rotation if it wants to make a run to a district final. A Grandview-Johnstown district final would be intriguing, as the Johnnies have dominated the Bobcats in its last two meetings, both of which in the Bobcat Holiday Classic.
In the last week of the regular season, Africentric experienced an extreme high by knocking Walnut Ridge out of the City title race, but then experienced an extreme low by losing to Briggs on the last night of league play. These two games were the epitome of the Nubians’ regular season, as Africentric can literally beat anyone and lose to anyone. Coach Mike Bates and the Nubians are hoping the first part of that statement is true in the tournament as Africentric calmly jumped into Harvest Prep’s bracket after ending the Warriors’ 28-0 season in the state final four a year ago. Returning with a new cast of players, Africentric may not be as talented as last year’s state runner-up squad, however, one thing hasn’t changed - this team is still tough. It all starts in the backcourt with the stellar duo of junior Cali Davis and sophomore Eli Burke. Burke has been one of the most improved sophomores in the area and figures to play a major role in this tournament run. Africentric won’t be challenged until the district semifinals where they could face off with No. 4 Columbus Academy. The Nubians match up well with Academy and would need to play a full 32 minutes of top level basketball in order to beat them. If Africentric can reach the district finals for the sixth-straight season, a more than likely match up against their Division III rival Harvest Prep would await. Bates is one of the best tournament coaches in the area and is more than capable of guiding this team as far as they want to go, but with a young and inexperienced team, anything can happen.
A senior laden bunch that competed at the top of the MOAC, Pleasant comes into the district tournament on a mission. Pleasant probably feels like they were seeded a bit too low after going 15-6, however, the Spartans can make up for that by reaching a district final. A three headed monster of seniors Nick Kimmel, Ethan Warner and Gage Williams is what leads Pleasant into a postseason run that will be challenging from the get go. Hosting No. 17 Northmor in the first round, Pleasant gets its second matchup against the Golden Knights after taking them down by 16 points roughly a month ago. Northmor greatly improved in the last half of the season and should be a challenging opponent in the first round. Pleasant will then likely have to go on the road and knock off No. 5 Fairbanks in order to get to the district semifinals where No. 3 Johnstown should likely await. If that wasn’t challenging enough, Pleasant will then have to likely take on either No. 2 Worthington Christian or No. 6 Grandview Heights in the district finals. This was a team we were very high on in the preseason and we think Pleasant still has what it takes to make a run to the district finals, as it is hard to take down chemistry, experience and cohesion in the tournament - three things the Spartans have.
Having one of its best seasons in recent memory, West Jefferson comes in with 16 wins and the No. 9 seed. The Roughriders are a senior laden bunch looking to make some noise before they all depart for college. Senior wings Ben Casey (6-foot-3) and Joe Thompson (6-foot-4) are two Division III priority recruits that can fill it up in a hurry. West Jeff will be challenged immediately in the tournament, as a likely sectional final at former MSL rival No. 6 Grandview Heights awaits in the sectional finals. If West Jeff can get by the Bobcats, they will likely face No. 2 Worthington Christian in the district semis, a team the Roughriders beat on the road earlier in the year. The road may be tough, but the Roughriders have shown the ability to beat elite teams already this season, which makes West Jeff one of the most intriguing sleepers in the tournament.
If you just looked at Ready’s record, you wouldn’t think of them as much of a sleeper. However, the Silver Knights have enough talent and depth to make things interesting in the tournament. A team filled with talented sophomores, Ready has a few seniors in Jaishan Norris and Cole Canter who played big roles on last season’s district runner up squad. With those two back and sophomore Darius Parham making major strides, Ready could be present an upset special in the tournament. Ready jumped right on No. 5 Fairbanks at the tournament draw, as the Silver Knights like their chances on the road in the sectional semis. If Ready can get by the Panthers, a likely matchup against No. 8 Pleasant will await on the road in the sectional finals. Ready has already played at Pleasant this season, losing in late December 54-41. Improving in the two months since, Ready is more than capable of winning that game. If they can get by the Spartans, Ready will then likely face off with No. 3 Johnstown in a district semifinal. The route will be extremely challenging, but it is not entirely impossible for a team with enough talent and outside shooting to shake things up.
Despite finishing in the middle of the road in the MSL-Buckeye, Amanda-Clearcreek led the conference in wins with 15. The Aces are a veteran squad that played everyone close this year, as senior Will Riffle is one of the best players you’ll find south of Central Ohio. With solid guard play and a big post threat inside in 6-foot-7 Alex Smith, Amanda has enough pieces to string together a run in the Columbus 2 bracket. If the Aces can get by the winner of the North Union/East Knox matchup, a district semifinal matchup against Harvest Prep awaits. Only the third team to jump into the Warrriors’ bracket, Amanda will have its hands full in that game, but if the Aces can control tempo and get major performances from Riffle and Smith, it might be enough to hang around in that matchup.
Since starting the season 0-6, Liberty Union went 10-5 with the addition of senior Hunter Antritt to the lineup. One of the more entertaining rural teams in Division III, Liberty Union loves to get up and down the floor, as Antritt has really excelled in the system, putting up big scoring numbers with his three-point shooting. A team stock full of seniors, Liberty Union should not be overlooked, as the Lions are much better than what their record indicates. A tough first round matchup against Fredericktown is what Liberty Union will start the tournament with, before a potential matchup at No. 3 Johnstown in the sectional finals. The Lions feel very confident about their chances in the district tournament, as they could have an outside shot of reaching a district final if they can get through the sectional tournament first.