Here we go: this is Bounce’s favorite conference this year? Have you heard that before? Good, that is my intention. This is a conference that has up to six teams that are contenders for a title and a host of the best players in this area, period.
So here is my, best as a I can try, breakdown of the NECC. Teams listed are in my predicted order of finish.
Churubusco (BOYS HOOPS PREVIEW #5) has a few new faces and they are going to be ones that play at a high level immediately. Noah Wolfe, Landen Jordan and Hunter Perlich are all going to make an impact. The questions about the Eagles’ ability to rise to the top of this conference will come with poise. Can Churubusco play smart, avoid mental lapses and avoid being drawn into a chippy lifestyle? If they can, there is no team in the NECC with the varsity game level depth that Churubusco had.
Central Noble (BOYS HOOPS PREVIEW #7) fought themselves into the number two spot in the conference a year ago and will return three of their four biggest pieces. The one they replace will be the question that keeps them at number two in my preseason eyes. Someone is going to have to pick up the slack and the addition of Logan Gard helps, but I suspect that Sawyer Yoder (Top 50 Boys Hoops #40) is going to improve enough to make a major difference.
Westview (BOYS HOOPS PREVIEW #10) is the defending NECC champions and return an Indiana Junior All-Star from the core six. No player in the NECC has the chops right now to match up with Charlie Yoder. But how to replace size and mismatch properties? Drew Litwiller is going to probably be the most critical piece in how the Warriors aim to repeat.
Prairie Heights had Westview on the ropes quite a bit last season in comparison to any other team. Mike Perkins (Top 50 Boys Hoops #34) returns as a two-time leading scorer and Elijah Malone (Top 50 Boys Hoops #18) is a problem in the post because of his footwork. Brandon Christlieb is going to be the X-factor though as he is a good shooter who can also move the ball well. While three teams are getting the most talk, even by Outside the Huddle, there is still very much a contender in Prairie Heights.
Angola keeps themselves in the mix because I am pretty sure Dyer Ball (Top 50 Boys Hoops #28) is longer and more agile than he was a year ago. This group has a lot of perimeter play to replace but the addition of Brian Parrish can help that. The Hornets have won three Sectional titles in the last four years, they find success no matter their roster. Senior Max Hamilton could also find a more significant role.
West Noble will have a new coach in Ethan Marsh but return quite a bit from last year’s team that was pretty solid. What makes the Chargers dangerous: a whole host of football players who are not going to be satisfied with how their season ended. Josh Gross can be a mismatch and he will be joined by the likes of Kyle Mawhorter. Joel Mast is back and his, at times, unorthodox style, is fun to watch. I also really like Brockton Miller as a ball handler and distributor. Bounce’s favorite name that will return to this team: future Navy football player Brandon Pruitt, who has the capability of just being a load on both ends of the court and will provide some unrivaled leadership to West Noble.
Fairfield is yet another team who will see their stock go down for the simple fact hey lost a lot fo key contributors. But they also add a veteran coach in Randy DeShone, who has win 262 games in his previous 22 seasons, including a state title. Nolin Sharick (Top 50 Boys Hoops #46) doesn’t get enough credit for how aggressive of player he is at the rim, so having him back helps a lot. Cade Gall also got good minutes last year so should be ready to contribute a lot.
Lakeland has to be happy with the pieces they have back to make some noise in the conference. Brayden Bontrager comes back and has a chance to eclipse 1,000 points for his career. This team has to find good balance early in order to establish their character. Can they push through in tough, close games? Braden Yoder, who struggled to find consistency despite big minutes last season, is an important piece because he can be a very good point guard in a conference where you need a talented ball handler.
Eastside will be one of those teams has a lot to replace, but could still be very good in the middle of this conference. Phoenix Smyth, Ethan Farnsworth and Wade Miller are all athletic playmakers who are going to bring a certain sense of pride and momentum from a successful football season. The Blazers are going to be a tough out a lot of nights but are going to need to see some advancement in scoring from their returners.
Fremont lost their best players to graduation and there is no hiding that. They are going to have to go through a pretty big rebuild from what they lost. Kameron Colclasure is likely their best returning piece.
Garrett stumbled to a last place finish the NECC last season and things aren’t looking great this year after the loss of Logan Gard, who had a solid freshman season. Graham Kelham will put in a big effort and Jayden Broadnax showed some signs of good offensive efficiency this summer.
Hamilton is really going to struggle. They don’t have any depth or a team that sees a lot of talent. The talent they did have a year ago is gone to graduation and heading back overseas (top player Marko Stanjocic was an exchange student). Alex Thain can score, but he will have a heavy, heavy load on his back.
Charlie Yoder of Westview is the best player in this conference, don’t @ me. He can score any way you want him too, he is capable of taking the big shot and is completely humble in his process. He is starting to get Division 1 interest for a reason and he should be,
Jackson Paul of Churubusco (Top 50 Boys Hoops #11) impressed me as much as anyone this summer. He has expanded his game, is really trying to get better but still knows how and when to turn it on to the aggressive level.
Connor Essegian of Central Noble (Top 50 Boys Hoops #10) plays with quality finesse and may end up being the best player Noble County has ever seen. He has shown that even with added pressure and attention, he can make things happen. Which is good, because he’s going to have all the pressure and attention.
Elijah Malone of Prairie Heights moves so well for a guy his size. Forget for a second that nobody in this conference has shown they can matchup one on one with him. Instead, think about how hard it is to contain a guy who can move like he does.
PLAYERS ON THE RISE
Brayden Bontrager of Lakeland is a high quality scorer who averaged 16.5 points per game as a sophomore. Only once did he score in single digits and he provides great consistency for the Lakers. A pair of double doubles in losses to Central Noble and West Noble indicated how important he will be on the boards this season.
Josh Gross of West Noble had a pretty solid football season and will be a great emotional leader for West Noble on the court. He has talent around the rim and can step out and perform well in the midrange.
Joel Knox of Angola (Top 50 Boys Hoops #50) is gong to be able to take over games when teams key in on Dyer Ball. He hasn’t reached his full potential yet, so when he does the Hornets are going to be really good.
Phoenix Smyth of Eastside played fiesty in flashes last season but will now have to be aggressive all of the time with the Blazers leading their top scorers. Smyth has a soft touch.
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