With the girls basketball playoffs done with last night's first round, it's time to turn our predictive attention to the boys hardwood in advance of the Central Section postseason, which begins at 7 p.m. tonight. There are big games all over Kern County, with Division I tilts at Liberty (Clovis), Stockdale (Buchanan) and Bakersfield (Tulare Union, with a now-healthy Keonta Vernon) the headliners. Independence (28-1) also gets going in Division III with what should be a tune-up against No. 16 seed CVC.
As we did yesterday with the girls, let's go through each division individually. The full brackets are linked to within the title of each section.
Outlook: Bullard is the bully yet again, with the two-time defending champion Knights unbeaten and, except for one close game with Edison, untested against section competition this year. Some early losses relegated Edison to the No. 4 seed, which means the Tigers could see Bullard earlier than they would have liked. The other half of the bracket looks like a Clovis West vs. Central showdown between the top two finishers in the TRAC. Kern County has good, but not great, teams that will play at home in the first round and probably not afterwards. It would take a real magic carpet ride for one to become the first local D-I boys team to play for the gold in Selland Arena.
Darkhorse: All of the Kern County teams outside of Centennial could lay claim to this spot. Liberty is the lower-seeded team that has wins over No. 4 seed Edison and No. 5 Clovis North, but the Patriots have to get by Bullard somehow before they can really be called a sleeper. Don't see that happening. And as well as Bakersfield is playing, they'd hit a bad matchup in Central in Round 2. Instead, my sleeper is Stockdale, which should get by Buchanan and then has the size to bother Clovis West inside. If the Mustangs' guards can play the Golden Eagles to a draw (easier said than done, with Michael Orlich starring for CW), Stockdale could find itself in the final four.
Predicted final four: Bullard, Edison, Clovis West, Central
Championship: Bullard d. Central
Outlook: The top four seeds were clear, but it's difficult to decipher among the four. No. 4 seed East is surging behind breakout star Fatai Eke, but the Blades were a combined 2-5 against the rest of the field, including 1-3 against Garces. The Rams will go as far as the backcourt trio of Rashad Jackson, Sheldon Croney and Tim Pena will take them. It's also true that this might be the most wide-open bracket. A number of quality lower seeds lurk, like No. 5 Hanford West, No. 6 Hoover and No. 7 Redwood, but it's tough to see any putting together back-to-back wins against the top four to reach Selland.
Darkhorse: I'll go with Redwood, which has a history of playoff success and is familiar with its quarterfinal opponent, Garces. The Rangers lost to the Rams in a tight 72-68 game early in the season, so they'll expect to be in it. Redwood also played No. 3 seed Lemoore tough twice, winning by five and losing by one. If the Rangers can steal that first one on the road, they might be in for a run in a wide-open division.
Predicted final four: Sunnyside, East, Lemoore, Garces
Championship: East d. Garces
Outlook: There's no debating that this division is stronger than D-II, both at the top and through the middle. Independence ended the year ranked No. 2 in most section polls; the Falcons avenged their only loss, in overtime to Bakersfield, twice later in the season. It'll be a major surprise if the Falcons don't reach Selland, where they'll face a tough challenge likely either from No. 3 seed Mt. Whitney, which split the West Yosemite League title with Lemoore, or (more likely) from No. 2 Mission Oak, the East Yosemite League champion. A major wild card, though, is the health of Mission Oak point guard Blake Shannon, who sat out the Hawks' final regular-season games with a knee injury. According to Shannon's Twitter feed, he appears good to go for tonight's opening-round game with Sanger, but if he's not 100 percent, that changes the whole D-III landscape. If he is, expect an Independence-Mission Oak showdown on March 2 in Selland that might be the weekend's best game.
Darkhorse: Anyone at Selland besides Independence and Mission Oak would be a surprise, so I'll take the liberty of calling No. 3 seed Mt. Whitney a darkhorse. The Pioneers are the only team I could see ruining that 1 vs. 2 matchup, and it's not too far-fetched: They played Mission Oak very tough in a three-point loss early in the season.
Predicted final four: Independence, South, Mt. Whitney, Mission Oak
Championship: Independence d. Mission Oak
Outlook: Here again, it'll be a surprise if we don't see a 1 vs. 2 matchup in the final, with top seed Washington Union and No. 2 Exeter both looking like heavy favorites on their half of the bracket. But both have had ups and downs, with Washington Union losing by 12 to No. 3 seed Sierra, and Exeter suffering a couple of not-great losses to CVC in league play. The question is whether another team in the field is capable of stepping up, stopping those two and reaching Selland for a Saturday noon tip. Granite Hills, Sierra, Chowchilla and Lindsay would seem the next best options.
Darkhorse: Both Lindsay and Bakersfield Christian finished their seasons strong after slow Decembers, and wouldn't you know it? They're facing each other tonight in the first round. Whoever survives could give No. 3 seed Sierra fits and make a final four run. My bet is on the Cardinals at home, but BCHS under first-year coach Brian Dignan has made major strides, too.
Predicted final four: Washington Union, Granite Hills, Lindsay, Exeter
Championship: Washington Union d. Exeter
Outlook: Like on the girls side, the CIF's Division V enrollment cap has limited the number of teams in this bracket. The boys have seven, meaning play will begin with the quarterfinals on Friday. The top seed is Minarets, with two teams with losing records, Tranquillity and Immanuel (0-10 in the Central Sequoia League) as the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds. In fact, outside of Minarets, the only teams in the bracket with winning records are No. 5 Northwest Christian and No. 6 Kings Christian. But Immanuel has played by far the best schedule of the bunch; if the Eagles can shake off the effects of a winless league season, they can make a run.
Darkhorse: Northwest Christian is a complete unknown to most in this bracket because they played in the tiny Central Sierra League. But the Guardians have good athletes — the school won the section's 8-man football championship — and have an advantage over many teams in this bracket: They go in expecting to win, having gone unbeaten in the CSL.
Predicted final four: Minarets, Northwest Christian, Immanuel, Tranquillity
Championship: Minarets d. Immanuel