Why would it be anybody but Central Noble at this point? The Cougars are undefeated and have proven countless times that they are made for the rigors of this tournament with Connor Essegian, Ryan Schroeder and Logan Gard looking to lead this team to a third straight crown. Those three have been significant in each of the last two tournament wins and when you have that kind of experience, it really pushes you to another level. Sometimes, you’d have to worry about a team that is unbeaten and two time defending champs being complacent but these three seniors are not going to let that happen.
The catalyst for another run though will be those who follow them up, including Jackson Andrews and Conner Lemmon. Andrews is still finding his stride as a presence on both ends of the court and has shown some really bright spots. A confident and still aggressive Lemmon makes this team a lot better. His shooting has been streaky at times but if he gets going he can shoot with almost anyone in the conference.
Sam Essegian has started to get stronger in his role too. He uses his length well and although he is not a post per say, Essegian has looked more and more comfortable handling bigger players, being physical and rebounding the ball well.
Until someone stops the Cougars, they are an overwhelming favorite in a really tough and interesting tournament.
WHO COULD SURPRISE
Well, at this point, it could be a surprise for anyone to topple Central Noble. So this is more easily considered a contendership portion with Eastside, Westview, Fremont and West Noble on the clock.
Eastside is here because nobody has proven they can beat them yet. They have fought, clawed, willed and skilled their way to wins and the best start in program history. They have a seasoned coach who knows this tournament, is comfortable in this environment and the gyms that make up this conference. The Blazers boast some great scoring from the strength of Gabe Trevino to the intelligence of Owen Willard. Logan Fry gives them a third big scoring option and few teams have that in them.
Westview rolls into contendership for two reasons: they too have a seasoned coach who knows the ins and outs of this tournament AND they have another high scoring Yoder. We all knew that Mason Yoder was good before this season, but who had him as the single best scorer in the conference? What he just did to East Noble was nothing short of masterful. He has options around him, including Brady Yoder, that can score but there aren’t many players in this entire area, let alone the conference that can score like Mason. With his scoring prowess and a calm and collected front line a lot of the time, Westview is in the mix.
Fremont remains underrated and I think they kind of like that. There isn’t a team who will play with more of a chip on their shoulder than the Eagles and that can be a very good thing. They want to prove a lot and this is an ideal time to do so. Fremont can hurt you in a lot of ways and if they play loose and not too too stressful, they could really shift this entire tournament. The more that Corbin Beeman settles in can be really helpful from a first attack stand point. We know that Logan Brace will be aggressive, Gabel Pentecost and Ethan Bock will both score and rebound well and Ethan Bontrager can knock down big shots. If Beeman settles in with his team, this could be the best 1-5 in the tournament.
Then there is West Noble. How could we or anyone forget about West Noble? While they have fallen into being a near .500 team, this is a group with the energy to really turn that around starting with this tournament. They will bring the best versions of themselves into a possible second round game with Central Noble. Austin Cripe, at 26.7 points per game, is one of the best pure scorers in the NECC. Julio Macias has come into his own and Nevin Phares has done a good job of helping to pace this defense.
If there is a real “surprise” option, it is Prairie Heights with Chase Bachelor and Isaiah Malone playing quality basketball right now.
5 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Logan Gard of Central Noble is the biggest interior threat in this tournament and his growth is something that is a shining star for the Cougars in recent years. He has had to go to battle with tough big men in this tournament and conference and it has made him a really strong force.
Logan Brace of Fremont is averaging 16.8. points and 10 rebounds per game. That is impressive on its own, but when you know he’s also at three steals per game, it really shows how well he can effect the game on both ends. Brace’s offense is hard to stop therefore, few actually have. To this point, he is shooting 71 percent from the field, which is mind boggling.
Chase Bachelor of Prairie Heights has really separated himself in his team as a great leader on the court. Bachelor was part of the Panthers teams that were at the top of the conference recently and it shows that he knows how to win. In a comeback win last week over Angola, Bachelor posted 25 points and 10 rebounds.
Mason Yoder of Westview has just been a giant revelation this season. Yoder is leading the conference in scoring and has been able to separate himself from almost every player he has lined up against. This conference probably does have more players than many others that can take over games with their scoring, but Yoder is in the top 2 of that list right now.
Dane Lantz of Angola is a sophomore who is really coming into his own as a multi dimensional scorer. The Hornets have the toughest draw of all, but what can they come up with for their first round game? No matter what, Lantz has to factor in especially if he can get hot shooting the ball.
LIKELY TOURNAMENT MVP
This isn’t a real thing in the NECC, but this has to be Connor Essegian, right? He takes over any game he wants to and there hasn’t been a match for him this season. Essegian should really be on another level this week and he’s going to be the MVP of this tournament regardless of the outcome.
Other names to watch include West Noble’s Austin Cripe, Fremont’s Gabel Pentecost and Logan Brace and Westview’s Mason Yoder.
BOUNCE’S TOURNAMENT PREDICTION
This one is a bit harder to predict than the girls side and if you read above you know why. There are a lot of contenders for this title depending on which way the wind blows.
Lets look at Tuesday night where I will start by saying that I think Brandon Appleton’s Angola team is going to give Central Noble a tougher fight than most would expect. That said, the Cougars come out with a win. Other winners Tuesday will be West Noble, Eastside and Garrett with some quality games in there.
On Wednesday, I expect Central Noble to get the in their rematch with West Noble, but it could be one of the best games of the tournament if not the best. Fremont will top Churubusco, Eastside will beat Garrett and Westview will beat Prairie Heights in another one of those top games from this tournament.
Brings me to a final four that is really, really good.
I will take Central Noble over Fremont on Friday where home court will certainly matter. The Eagles are going to work hard to control the inside and this game may be the one I am most looking forward to in this entire tournament. Then I am going to take Eastside to beat Westview but lets be honest, if Mason Yoder does what he is capable of doing, that is far from an easy win.
Saturday, someone loses their ‘0’ in my scenario and I think it’s Eastside. Central Noble is just too battle tested at this point to falter if they reach the finals. So I will take the Cougars to win another NECC Tournament title.
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