Well, Watson Chapel doesn’t have Beebe to prepare for this time.
After two straight first-round state tournament exits at Beebe’s hands, the Wildcats (19-6, 11-3 in 5A-South) are going into this year’s 5A playoffs with more experience and its highest seed under third-year coach Matt Busch.
Add to that their winningest overall record under Busch, and the coach thinks this is his best chance to take the Wildcats deep into the road to Hot Springs, trying to give Watson Chapel its first boys state title in 15 years.
“We’ve improved every year since I’ve been here, be it in record or how we’ve finished (in conference),” Busch said. “We’ve been in two different conferences since I’ve been here, and this group of seniors, this was my first group here. These guys are seasoned enough to go up and do what it takes to win a couple of games.”
Going up means heading north to Alma for the tournament, where the 5A-South runner-up Wildcats will take on 5A-Central third seed Little Rock McClellan at 8:30 p.m. Friday.
It’s a longer wait than expected, since the Arkansas Activities Association postponed the start of the tournament for the second straight day. Watson Chapel last played Feb. 25 at home against Magnolia.
“Kids get antsy,” Busch said. “They want to get up there. They’re excited about playing in Alma. They probably have the nicest gym I’ve ever seen.”
McClellan, a former 6A contender, played tough in a conference that includes defending state champion Jacksonville and former 4A powerhouse Pulaski Academy — and did so with a young lineup.
“I think they actually start two freshmen, but they’re very talented freshmen,” Busch said. “With McClellan, since I’ve been coaching, they’ve been very athletic. I think the key to McClellan is to handle the pressure of their press.”
Busch said the press fits the Lions well, likening the pressure to that of Arkansas, where he was a student assistant. But he also likes how the Wildcats match up with them.
Busch is counting on experience to pull the Wildcats through, with seniors Tevin Brown, C.J. Robinson and Ben Marcus heading into their third state tournament together. Along with juniors Leonard Robinson and Xavier Young, the upperclassmen have carried the Wildcats to their best conference finish under Busch and a shot at a 20-win season.
Watson Chapel ruled the 5A-South during the first half of conference play but suffered costly losses to eventual titlist Hot Springs, Camden Fairview and Hope.
“They are all three losses we’d like to have back,” Busch said. “It’s not always the worst thing to experience a couple of losses to get you motivated. We lost three games there in conference, but it wasn’t for lack of effort or anything like that. I think the thing they’ve learned is anybody can beat you any night.”
Smith: Streaking Zebras not viewed as serious
With an eight-game winning streak including an upset of eventual 7A/6A-South champion Benton, Pine Bluff has established itself as a serious 6A title contender.
Now, if the rest of the state can take the Zebras as serious …
“You got (Little Rock) Parkview and Hall and all that, but I don’t think they think that we’re serious,” second-year Zebras coach Carl Smith said. “We think the message will be spread when we get to state.”
The Zebras, who finished second in the South, have an interesting draw in the 6A tournament, to be held at Jonesboro High. They’ll start off against usual first-round foe Mountain Home at 2:30 p.m. Friday for a chance to play either conference rival Sheridan or defending state champion Hall in the quarterfinal round Monday night. Should Hall and Pine Bluff square off, the Zebras will have a golden opportunity to send a strong message.
Smith said he doesn’t know much about Mountain Home other than what he’s seen from the Bombers in previous state tournaments, adding they usually run “a lot of sets” and like to shoot the three.
Smith isn’t yet sure how the delay in the tournament start will affect his team.
“You set your sights on one date and they push it back,” he said. “Everybody’s got to go through the same thing. Hopefully, we come out of the gates ready to play. “We’re hot and ready to play good basketball. Hopefully, the delay doesn’t interfere with that.”
Cards vs. Billies still a possibility
Two of the 4A championship favorites for much of the season find themselves with the possibility of meeting in the quarterfinals.
Before Saturday night, it seemed very likely Dollarway (18-4) and Monticello (23-4) would gear themselves for a journey that would lead into a state championship meeting in Hot Springs. But both lost their regional finals that evening, costing Monticello a spot in the top half of the 4A bracket and Dollarway a position in the bottom half.
Still, Monticello received a first-round bye because this year is the South Region’s turn to have two teams automatically reach the state second round. Dollarway, which was surprisingly dominated by Brookland on Saturday night, has to beat Prairie Grove in a Friday afternoon game for the right to meet Monticello Saturday night.
A newspaper poll had Dollarway and Monticello among the top three in 4A for much of the season. Dollarway, last year’s 4A state runner-up to Pottsville, won its third straight conference championship — its second in the 2-4A, while Monticello has gone 28-0 in the 8-4A the past two seasons. Monticello’s two-point loss to Central Arkansas Christian on Saturday marked the end of a 17-game winning streak.