By Staff
Mike Self
Franklin County Times
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of any tournament setting is the potential for upsets.
In that case, four boys basketball teams in Franklin County are hoping the excitement level reaches an all-time high tonight as area tournament play tips off.
The first-round opponents of Russellville, Phil Campbell and Belgreen are all ranked in the Top 10 of their respective classifications, and Red Bay is set to face Class 2A, Area 16 champion Mars Hill on the Panthers' home floor.
All told, the four teams from Franklin County are a combined 1-7 against their first-round foes this season. All seven losses have been by double digits.
Still, the regular season is history. In the one-and-done environment of the postseason, being the underdog is not necessarily a bad thing.
"In this situation, everybody is expecting them to win," said Russellville coach Michael Smith, whose Golden Tigers (19-7) will face No. 4 Decatur (22-5) at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the Class 5A, Area 16 tournament. "All the pressure is on them. We just want to keep it close, because the longer it stays close the more pressure they'll start to feel. You know how the old saying goes: 'Pressure breaks the pipes.'
"They've already beaten us by double-digits twice. If we can keep it close, they might get a little bit tight and start thinking, 'Hey, we could actually lose this game.' That would work to our advantage."
In order to make the Red Raiders sweat a little, Russellville must find a way to contain star point guard Rico Pickett. Pickett, who has committed to Alabama, has averaged 21 points in the first two games against the Golden Tigers.
"It's hard to stop him completely, but we just want to slow him down," Smith said. "The biggest thing we want to do is put him in positions where he has to think about what we're doing to him defensively. We want to make him think about whether he should shoot or pass. If we can get the ball out of his hands a little and maybe force his teammates to handle it some, maybe we can create some turnovers."
Red Bay coach Greg Cash said his team is in somewhat unfamiliar territory as they prepare to face Mars Hill tonight in the first round of the Class 2A, Area 16 Tournament.
"This is still a little new to us," Cash said. "Last year we were in the play-in game, and the whole thing was almost over before it started. We didn't really have time to feel any pressure.
"I just told our guys to go out [tonight] and play the game of their lives. Dive on the floor for loose balls, knock down cheerleaders, do whatever they have to do. We're not conceding anything. Mars Hill is the No. 1 seed, but that doesn't automatically mean they're going to win the tournament. Anything can happen. All we can do is go out there and lay everything on the line and hope it works out."
The Tigers (10-15) are coming off one of their best offensive showings of the season in Monday's win over Hamilton, but Cash said that Mars Hill presents a lot of challenges defensively.
"They're very sound fundamentally," he said. "I think the last time we played them they drew four charges. It just seems like they're always where they're supposed to be."
Belgreen's boys will also be taking the floor tonight against a ranked opponent.
The Bulldogs, seeded third in the Class 1A, Area 16 tournament, will face No. 9 Covenant Christian (20-5), the second seed, at 7:30 p.m. in a semifinal matchup at Shoals Christian School.
Belgreen lost both meetings against the Eagles during the regular season.
Bulldog coach Wes Hester talked earlier this season about how difficult it is to defend Covenant Christian's many dangerous outside shooters.
"They can really shoot the basketball," Hester said. "Jameson Hughston has stepped up his game this season, but they've got a lot of guys who can shoot it."
Phil Campbell's boys are in a slightly different situation than their county brethren. The Bobcats (13-13) split a pair of regular season meetings with No. 8 Cherokee (19-5), losing by 20 in late November and then beating the Indians by two points just ten days later.
The rubber match will be tonight at 6 p.m. in the Class 2A, Area 16 tournament at Mars Hill Bible School.
"Our kids know we can beat them if we play well and do the things we're supposed to do," said Phil Campbell coach Gary Odom, who guided the Bobcats to the Northwest Regional finals last season. "The first time we played them, we took a lot of bad shots. We would come down the floor and sling up one bad shot, and they would go to the other end and get two or three shots. The second time we played them, our shot selection was better and we were able to get a few more defensive and offensive rebounds."
The Bobcats have a little momentum heading into tonight's game, having won three of their last four. They made 13 three-pointers in a game twice down the stretch, in wins over Belgreen and Hamilton.
"I believe we have been getting better here towards the end," Odom said. "Some things we were trying to do earlier in the season weren't working because we weren't doing them right. We've been doing a better job lately. I think one reason we're shooting the ball well right now is because we're finding the right shot. We're not just slinging up any shot we can get.
"Our shooting is still pretty streaky, but if we continue to shoot it like we have been lately we'll be all right."