While a lot of non-conference games highlighting the last night of the regular season in Northeast Indiana, it is a NECC game that draws the interest from Outside the Huddle. Central Noble and Fairfield will go to battle, with second place in the conference on the line. Fairfield sits at 9-1 in the NECC while Central Noble is 8-2.

THREE STORYLINES

1. CONFERENCE BRAGGING RIGHTS

As previously mentioned, this does wonder for bragging rights after Westview sealed sole possession of the NECC title on Tuesday, denying Fairfield the chance to play this game in hopes of getting a share of the crown. Second place may mean more to one team than the other as Fairfield shared the title last year and in 2015 while Central Noble has not finished higher than fourth in the conference any time in the previous 10 seasons.

In an underrated conference that will boast seven teams with double digit wins this season and the best team in Class 2A holding point at the top, second isn’t anything to scoff at. And even if Fairfield has been this high more recently, both teams would love the push that a second place conference gives. And why?

2. SECTIONAL MOMENTUM

Fairfield is considered one of the favorites in their Class 3A sectional. Central Noble will compete in what is, based on winning percentage and Sagarin ratings, the toughest Sectional in the state of Indiana. Both teams need the push for different reasons. As a favorite, the Falcons have a target squarely on their backs. For the Cougars, a tough Sectional means no draw was going to be easy. Their draw: Westview at Westview on Tuesday night.

3. CONNOR ESSESGIAN’S RECORD NIGHT

The Central Noble freshman has blow the school’s freshman scoring record out of the water and he did that long ago. Friday night, he could be breaking the record for most points scored by a freshman in the history of Noble County. That honor currently sits with Steve Anspaugh, who scored 408 points in 1966. Essegian was behind that quite a bit before 22 and 20 points games earlier this week, but he now sits at 399 points this season.

The three players most closely behind Essegian at this point? Central Noble seniors Meleah Leatherman and Sydney Freeman and East Noble junior Hayden Jones.

FOUR PLAYERS TO WATCH

1. CORDELL HOFER, FAIRFIELD

At 14.2 points per game, Hofer is not only the anchor of this team but comes with a wealth of experience being a big part of last year’s team. When Fairfield is at their best, it is when they are following Hofer’s lead as a no nonsense ball hawk. His desire to get to the basket as a scorer or rebounder is rarely rivaled in the NECC. He sets the tone for this game.

2. CONNOR ESSEGIAN, CENTRAL NOBLE

As mentioned, Essegian is an incredible offensive talent very quickly into his high school career. He find a way to impact the game offensively no matter how his shot is or is not falling on that particular day. If his shot is falling, that give the Cougars a significant edge.

3. NOAH SHARICK, FAIRFIELD

Finding his role has been big for Sharick, who shoots 59 percent from the field. He is a player much in the same mold as Hofer when it comes to getting to the basket with authority. He isn’t much of a shooter, only putting up 40 threes on the season, but he has made 21 of those. Sharick’s advantage for Fairfield is causing chaos and forcing turnovers, where he really has a chance to let his effort and aggression shine.

4. RIDLEY ZOLMAN, CENTRAL NOBLE

There is a calm, quiet confidence to Zolman, the senior leader for a young Cougar team. When some of the younger guys have off nights, coach John Bodey has been able to lean on Zolman, who keeps a pretty even keel. Zolman is also a very good shooter and that has helped spread out the floor for the dribble drive efforts of the Cougar guards throughout the season.

KEYS TO VICTORY — FAIRFIELD

1. CONTROL THE PAINT

Hofer and Sharick will have to play around the basket and gather rebounds as will senior Skylar Mast. This is a situation where the Cougars probably won’t try and post up much but their ability to drive to the hoop has bothered a lot of opposing teams. Fairfield has to be ready for that drive and contest shots while also getting to the basket themselves.  6-foot-3 freshman Braedon Helms doesn’t get much playing time, but he may be a good one to spell some teammate because of his size. The work ethic of Peyton Faldoe can be helpful in controlling the glass too, although he traditionally isn’t much of a rebounder.

2. LET HOFER LOOSE

Big games rely on big time players and Hofer can make a world of difference. Fairfield has won 7 of their last 8 with capable, balanced play. But Hofer makes a world of difference in the flow of a basketball game. He will score well through offensive sets, but when he turns up his effort and freelances a little bit, it is possible that it will cause matchup switches a lot for the Cougars.

KEYS TO VICTORY — CENTRAL NOBLE

1. MAKE YOUR OUTSIDE SHOTS

Central Noble rarely shoots themselves out of games because they have an adaptability on offense. Essegian, Zolman, Lucas Deck, Sawyer Yoder, Carson Capps and plenty of others can get to the basket when the Cougars get out and run like coach Bodey likes. But transition threes could take this game out of the realm of being a battle in the trenches to being a comfortably controlled game for the Cougars in front of an always fun home crowd.

2. DEPTH

Fairfield relies on five guys primarily. Central Noble uses a deeper bench and this is a night they can use it to their advantage. Fresh legs are great for a quick transition team and, as noted, Central Noble is a threat on the break. Use your depth wisely, keep your guys fresh and winning a war of attrition is going to be well in Central Noble’s favor.

BOUNCE’S PREDICTION

Make no mistake, this is a really good matchup of two teams that would have a chance to win the NECC any year other than this one. Both teams have talent that, best of all, works hard. If you want to see a game full of effort, which Bounce loves, then Albion should be your destination on Friday night.

Picking this game isn’t as easy as most games, hence why it gets a full preview and wasn’t part of Bounce’s Monday picks. There are multiple layers and multiple players that can drastically alter the outcome of this game. I really do think this could be a big showcase night for Hofer, who doesn’t get enough respect in NE Indiana outside of this conference. He is a great talent that knows how to win.

But when games are close, Bounce generally leans towards the home court advantage. And I know how loud they get in Albion. With the girls team not making the state finals, there is no question that this is the weekend’s premier event in Albion.

Bounce picks Central Noble

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