The boys' basketball playoffs in the CIF Southern and City sections are underway and kick into high gear Friday with teams playing all over the Southland.
The road to championships in 16 divisions of CIF in this region figure to be arduous and emotional for those involved.
Teams from deep Orange County to northern Ventura County, from the far east reaches of the Inland Empire to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, will all be in contention for a title shot.
Recently, ESPNLA.com's prep reporters, Blair Angulo, Dan Arritt, Martin Henderson, Tim Haddock and Sean Ceglinsky took a few minutes to answer some questions about the postseason and beyond.
Here's what they had to say about some of the compelling individuals, teams and storylines of of the 2011 playoffs:
What team and what player are you most excited to see in the playoffs?
BA: I'm intrigued to see if Los Angeles Price, the top seed in the Division 3AA playoffs and defending state champion, can duplicate last year's magic. Key components Allen Crabbe and Richard Solomon are now playing for Mike Montgomery at Cal, so alley-oop buddies Askia Booker (Colorado) and Norvel Pelle (St. John's) will have to answer the call.
DA: Right off the bat, I was looking forward to watching Redlands senior guard Ashton Robinson play against Montebello and 6-foot-11, 275-pound senior center Antonio Worthy in a Division 1AA first-round game Wednesday at Montebello. Robinson was second in the state with a 34.1 scoring average, which is even more amazing considering he averaged just 8.2 points as a junior. Worthy’s size made him a force in the paint and Robinson didn't adjust well to it as Montebello shut him down.
MH: Padre Pio Academy in Garden Grove has just 19 students, and the team has a sophomore big man, 6-4 Kevin Crostic. I’m guessing he really is the big man on campus. Even though he’s not the best player on the team (Danny Soto is), a guy like that, with any skills, could probably go a long ways in a small schools division. On a more conventional scale, I’d like to see Chris Anderson of Anaheim Canyon. He’s maybe 5-8 but does all the things that helps his team win, and his team hung tough with Mater Dei for three quarters — twice.
TH: Ventura is generating a ton of interest for all the right reasons. Ventura earned the top seed in the CIF Southern Section Division 2AA playoffs with a group of players who have been playing together since elementary school. The tallest player, 6-6 Josh Tice, is going to Pepperdine to play water polo. One of the team’s starting guards, 6-3 Nick Rudolph, is the best receiver on the Ventura football team. Dustan Neary, a 6-5 forward, also plays on the school’s volleyball team. How often does a championship high school basketball team have so many two-sports athletes these days? It’s no secret sharpshooting Dylan Houck has to play at the top of his game for Ventura to make a deep run in playoffs. He is the one player that can make a difference, But he will have plenty of help. The Ventura boys look like a group that understands the team concept.
SC: I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks this way, but the team and player that could be most exciting both hail from Division 4AA. If you guessed Bellflower St. John Bosco and its star Cezar Guerrero, give yourself a pat on the back. If any one individual is capable of carrying a program to a title, perhaps it's the senior point guard who has something to prove after sitting out the first-round game for disciplinary reasons. He's expected back on Friday which means Orange Lutheran, Los Angeles Windward and Mission Hills Alemany should be on alert because Guerrero & Co. are a threat.
Who is the most impressive player you’ve seen this season?
BA: This may or may not come as a shocker, but I'll go with Glendora sophomore Nick Colletta. The kid just finds the bottom of the net. He can get to the basket and score inside, but his ability to catch-and-shoot is what will attract college coaches. Colletta has averaged 24.1 points per game, which ranks 30th in the state and second among sophomores.
DA: That would have to be Etiwanda wing Byron Wesley. The USC-bound senior can score from a variety of spots on the floor, as evident when he totaled 29 points in a victory Jan. 7 against visiting Rancho Cucamonga. Defensively, he’s also a nemesis, using his long reach to get disrupt passing lanes and a powerful base to nudge players off the block. The second-most impressive player I’ve watched this season was Pepperdine-bound senior center Paulin Mpawe of Redlands East Valley.
MH: Xavier Johnson, the junior at Mater Dei who transferred from Temecula Chaparral, was pretty complete. He can hit a three, and he moves nicely around the basket like the best players at Mater Dei do. I’m hoping Mater Dei plays Chaparral in the quarterfinals. That ought to be interesting, eh?
TH: Byron Wesley from Etiwanda led his team to the Oaks Christian Holiday Invitational championship with relative ease. The USC-bound senior leads his team in scoring at 18.8 points per game.
SC: When thinking about the Southland's most impressive player, names such as Ryan Anderson, Norvel Pelle and Byron Wesley come to mind. Let's venture off the beaten path for minute though and reflect on the regular season Providence Burbank's Patrick Gonzalez had. He averaged 38 points, a total that included 10 games of 40 or more points and two efforts of 50 or more. It will be interesting to see if anyone in Division 5A can stop him.
Talk about a player who flies under the radar but could have a big impact on his team making a run.
BA: Damien center Chris Reyes. At 6-7, he's not the biggest center out there, but he plays big -- and that's really all that matters. The No. 4-seeded Spartans will need a huge effort from their big man if they hope to make noise in the Division 3A bracket. Reyes admits he's too "jumpy" at times, but his active nature inside is a plus.
DA: Dorian Cason of Fontana Summit is a 6-6, 200-pound forward who has the size and tenacity to score in the paint and a smooth, high release that allows him to consistently hit mid-range jumpers. The Portland-bound senior also benefits from playing in the shadow of senior point guard Montigo Alford, who draws a lot of attention from defenses and has the floor vision to give Cason open looks at the basket. The SkyHawks are seeded sixth in Division 2AA but Cason and Alford could easily lift them into the semifinals.
MH: Michael Cramer of Mission Viejo is a 6-3 junior averaging 6.7 points a game. He’s not the big man like 6-foot-10 Isaac Neilson, and he’s not a primary scoring option like Evan Zeller or brother James Cramer. When you consistently play games decided by five points, and that’s what happened to Mission late in the season, the guy who scores six points is pretty valuable. He shoots 59 percent from the arc and 85 percent from the line. He’s going to have his chances to make plays.
TH: Loyola has a pair of stars in Julian Harrell and Joe Stein. But freshman point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright could be the player who carries the Cubs through the Division 1A playoffs.
SC: No one talks much about Kenyatta Smith, but maybe they should. After all, the 6-7 senior post player from La Canada Flintridge Prep provides an unmistakable presence in the paint, particularly down in the low block. Smith, a Harvard commit, is averaging 20 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks per game. If the big man can stay out of foul trouble, it appears as if the Rebels could bring home some Division 5AA championship hardware.
What teams from your region have the best chance of winning titles?
BA: Long Beach Poly (Division 1AA), Peninsula (Division 2A) and Los Angeles Price (Division 3AA) are all top seeds, so you've got to like their odds. Bay League champion Peninsula (25-1) and top scorer Reese Morgan might have the easiest road, though. No. 3-seeded Inglewood and No. 2-seeded Windward are worth keeping an eye on in Division 3A and 4AA, respectively.
DA: Etiwanda has the big-game experience on its side. The Eagles, seeded fourth in Division 1AA, reached the championship game two of the last three seasons. They’ll need to go through top-seeded Long Beach Poly but Etiwanda defeated the Jackrabbits in last season’s semifinals. Elsinore has a good shot in Division 2A and Palm Springs in Division 3AA, as both are seeded second.
MH: Orange Lutheran has a couple of studs back from last year’s team that fell three points short in the finals to Price, James Douglas and Gabe York. The Lancers are the top-seeded team, and they should be. They have a victory over Mater Dei. They have guys who can handle the ball and hit the shots. They are fully capable. They are by no means a sure thing because they also lost to St. John Bosco, which could be waiting for them in the semifinals, but they also beat Bosco. That’s why you play the games.
TH: Loyola, one of the hottest teams in Division 1A, Ventura and their "team" in Division 2AA, always talented Harvard-Westlake in Division 3A, powerful Flintridge Prep in Division 5AA, Sierra Canyon in Division 5A and Valley Torah in Division 6AA. Woodland Hills Taft, and its talented collection of players, are the favorites in the City Section Division 1
SC: You heard it here first, Los Angeles Loyola is going to win the title in Division 1A. The Cubs, in fact, should go get fitted for rings right now, although their humble coach Jamal Adams would most likely vehemently downplay the idea. With victories over several programs in the ESPNLosAngeles.com top 20 rankings this season, Loyola is a battle-tested bunch, seemingly always up for a challenge. Whether the Cubs face many tests moving forward is questionable.
What team is your darkhorse pick to win a championship?
BA: I like La Verne Lutheran (18-4) in Division 3AA. The Trojans have been here before, winning the Division V state championship last year. There's talent left over, with junior forward Grant Jerrett, who is committed to Arizona, leading the charge. Senior Bruce English (Loyola Marymount) and sophomore Eric Cooper (Arizona) form a solid backcourt tandem. The Spartans lost to top-seeded Price earlier this season, so you know who they're gunning for.
DA: As mentioned earlier, Summit has the pieces to make a deep run and the SkyHawks are playing their best basketball of the season. They got off to a slow start while Alford and a couple other players missed the first couple weeks while helping the football team advance to the sections finals. Over in Division 2AA, 10th-seeded Ontario Colony has traditionally peaked in the playoffs and the Titans have the athleticism to give the abundance of Orange County teams on their side of the bracket fits.
MH: Tesoro finished fourth out of five teams in the South Coast League but was the only team this season to beat Mission Viejo, which was the only team this season to beat second-seeded Aliso Niguel — twice. Tesoro (15-10) plays a winnable game on the road in the first round against Walnut (16-10), would get seventh-seeded Crescenta Valley (20-7) at home, and then would probably face Aliso (24-2) in the Division 1A quarterfinals.
TH: Alemany, the No. 3 seed in the Division 4AA playoffs, could surprise a few people.
SC: It is difficult to imagine a top-seeded team qualifying as an underdog, but if such a thing exists, Ventura could very well fall into that dubious category. Division 2AA is loaded with potential pitfalls. Mission Viejo, the No. 2 seed, along with No. 3 Anaheim Canyon and No. 4 Compton loom large. Also, No. 5 Huntington Beach Edison, No. 6 Fontana Summit and No. 9 Villa Park appear primed to pull an upset. The Cougars could have their work cut out for them.
What would surprise you most about these playoffs?
BA: If Long Beach Poly wasn't the last team standing in Division 1AA. The Jackrabbits have been at the top all season, with forward Ryan Anderson (Boston College) and guard Alexis Moore (USC) guiding a deep, talented roster that includes class of 2013 standout Roschon Prince. It would be disappointing -- and quite shocking -- if Poly did not meet its meteoric expectations.
DA: Based on the overall strength of Division 1AA, it would be surprising if the top two seeded teams, Long Beach Poly and Mater Dei, advance to the championship game March 5 at Anaheim Convention Center. If the section playoffs were formatted like the state playoffs and the highest-seeded team received the home game, the Jackrabbits and Monarchs would probably keep winning, but both will likely face at least one long and difficult road test before the final two rounds move to the cavernous convention center.
MH: I’d be really surprised if there’s not an Orange County team playing for the championship in the top three divisions. Division 1AA might be the division most likely in which that doesn’t happen, but Mater Dei is the No. 2-seeded team. Loyola is the class of Division 1A, but Aliso Niguel, Capistrano Valley and Tesoro are all on the other side of the bracket and are legitimate threats to reach the finals, and a team like El Toro — even though it’s in Loyola’s quarter bracket —could win a big game on a given night. In 2AA, Mission Viejo and Anaheim Canyon are solid choices on the bottom half of the bracket, and Edison (24-2) has the same record as top-seeded Ventura on the upper half, and Villa Park won’t be a walk in the park.
TH: If Loyola or Woodland Hills Taft don’t win championships, those would be the biggest shockers.
SC: This is an easy one, no doubt, Woodland Hills Taft is a prohibitive favorite to win the City Section title and anything less than a championship would be a major disappointment. The talented Toreadors are without peer and feature a roster stacked with some of the premier players around, among them being Colorado-bound Spencer Dindwidde and Division I prospects Kevin Johnson and C.J. Blackwell. Odds are, there won't be a surprise here when all is said and done.