This has to be the most difficult high school basketball season in recent memory to try to predict which team will be the 6A state champion, even though there are just four teams still vying for the 2016-17 title.
The teams left are the top four seeds in the state tournament. Over a total of 110 games this season, there are just 13 total losses among those playing in tonight’s semifinals.
No. 2 seed Basha High (29-1) will meet No. 3 Desert Vista High School (19-5) in tonight’s first half of the double header at Gila River Arena at 6 p.m., followed by the 7:30 match-up between No. 1 Corona del Sol High School (25-3) and No. 4 Cesar Chavez High (24-4).
During the regular season, Corona beat Desert Vista four weeks ago, then DV beat Corona in the last game on the schedule. Basha and Corona both beat Cesar Chavez during December – but Corona’s win was by just one point.
You get the idea. This year’s title is up for grabs, unlike recent seasons.
Corona dominated with four straight titles from 2012 through 2015, generally rolling through the regular season with scant opposition. And last season, Mesa High beat Corona in the first week of the season, snapping a 70-game winning streak the Aztecs had built. From there on, Mesa looked like the team to beat and went on to win its first three games of the state tournament by an average of 15 points before beating Sunnyslope High for the D-I title.
During those playoffs, eighth-seeded Sunnyslope knocked top-seeded Corona out of the state tourney in the quarterfinals. But the Aztecs are back again this year with another No. 1 seed.
A veteran Aztecs team includes a couple of the state’s best players who have been a big part of Corona’s reign of dominance, senior guards Alex Barcello and Saben Lee. Both are D-I commits, Barcello to University of Arizona and Saben to Vanderbilt. Having one of the best back courts in the state has helped to make up for the kind of size some of their playoff opponents bring to the game.
Corona’s head coach, Neil MacDonald, is in just his second year running the program, but he was on staff as an assistant to Sam Duane Jr. for two of the four years the Aztecs were piling up state titles.
Desert Vista, on the other hand, is under the direction of a new head coach in Gino Crump. But Crump is working with a veteran team that includes junior forward Wesley Harris, who is leading the team scoring this season by averaging 16 points a game, and senior guard/forward Caleb Simmons who adds 12 points a game. Together with 6’8″ junior forward Christian Anigwe, the trio accounts for 16 rebounds a game.
Cesar Chavez will put Corona’s top-seed designation to the test tonight. Corona won a match-up with the Champions in the first week in December – but it was a high-scoring contest that the Aztecs barely pulled out of the fire, winning by one point (90-89).
With one of the quickest, most athletic back courts in the state this season and height on the perimeter, Cesar Chavez puts up the points. Only seven times this season have the Champions failed to score at least 70 points. In the first two playoff games, they scored 86 against Chandler High and 74 against Pinnacle High.
But the team to watch has to be Basha. The Bears are highly-motivated after losing in the semifinals last year and on the verge of playing in the school’s first state basketball final.
Their 26-game win streak was no fluke, even though they had a couple of close calls and one game that took an overtime to win. Their lone loss that came in the final game of the regular season was by a single basket, 59-57 to Perry High. The Bears didn’t play Desert Vista or Corona this season, but they beat Cesar Chavez by 12 to open the December schedule.
This team’s senior leadership on the floor – power forward Gabe McGlothan and guards Terrell Brown and Coleson Struhs – know what it takes to get this team to the finals this time and isn’t likely to let Desert Vista stand in their way tonight. Brown and McGlothan also lead the team scoring, with 15 and 14 points a game respectively.
While it’s really tough to make a call this season, look for Basha to face off with Corona in next Tuesday’s 6A championship game at Grand Canyon University Arena.
We’ll have to do a jump ball to decide the winner of that game.