Basketball State Playoff Preview – Contenders, Dark Horses, and U of D’s Path


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Noah Cahill, Sports Editor

March has officially begun. But we aren’t talking about the NCAA Tournament. The MHSAA Playoffs kicked off with first-round district matchups on Monday. Let’s take a look at the important teams and how they match up.

The Contenders

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*All rankings according to the D Zone Top 100

Brother Rice Warriors (21-1)

Headlining the group of contenders is the undisputed number-one team in the state. Brother Rice has an outstanding resume that includes a season sweep of U of D Jesuit, Catholic League regular season and tournament titles, and a marquee win against former number-one Cass Tech in the Operation Friendship game to take the top spot heading into playoffs. They have an abundance of talent and size with 6’6″ Louisville commit and Mr. Basketball finalist Curtis Williams, 6’4″ Wisconsin commit John Blackwell, and 6’5″ Toledo commit Xavier Thomas. That’s not to mention 6’5″ junior Warren Marshall, who had his coming out party at Calihan Hall with 25 in the Catholic League Championship against U of D followed by 25 more and a game-winner against Cass. The team’s only weakness is breaking the press, which gave them problems in multiple games, particularly in their only loss against De La Salle where they were held to only 34 points. Barring that game, however, which proved to be a one-off, this team will bring firepower to every game and resistance to opposing offenses with elite athleticism. They will be tested early with a district matchup against St. Mary’s, who (spoiler alert) will be featured later in the Dark Horses section. If they pass that test, U of D and North Farmington are on a path to meet them in the regional semi-finals and final respectively. The road won’t be easy, but they should feel very confident against anyone. 

Cass Tech Technicians (21-1)

The current number two team in the state is unsurprisingly also on this list. Entering the Brother Rice game, many questions could be asked about their undefeated record as they hadn’t faced many tests throughout the season. Cass Tech’s best wins came narrowly over the 26th-ranked Detroit King and comfortably over the 11th-ranked Grand Rapids Northview. In a down year for the usually strong PSL, Cass Tech’s league title was less impressive. However, they more than proved that they belong in this group in their matchup against Brother Rice. Led by star sophomore guard Darius Acuff and surrounded by strong athletes, this team gave Rice their hardest game of the year, which was an instant classic. If they are able to overcome King in a rivalry rematch and 15th-ranked River Rouge in their district, their path is cleared for a title run.

North Farmington Raiders (19-1)

The current number-three team in the state also makes the list. North Farmington has comfortably beaten and outright demolished solid opponents all year. Their marquee wins come against 4th-ranked Grand Blanc and 6th-ranked Muskegon. Of their 20 games played this season, only 3 have been against opponents outside of the Top 100. Their only slip-up came in overtime against a strong 8th-ranked Warren Lincoln team. They are led by Detroit Mercy commit and Mr. Basketball finalist Ryan Hurst, who is surrounded by a multitude of wings with size and shooting ability. Senior Prince Jackson and junior Landon Williams provide strong guard play in the backcourt as well. With a stout defense and the ability to erupt from three-point land, this team is primed for a deep run. To do this, however, they will likely have to face either Brother Rice or U of D in the regional final, which may feel like an early state title game. 

U of D Jesuit Cubs (18-4)

The final team on this list is 5th-ranked U of D Jesuit. I don’t need to say much about why this team deserves to be on this list. Their 4-loss record is deceiving as 3 have come against Brother Rice and one in a game against St. Mary’s that was bizarrely delayed and played over 2 days. You all know about Toledo commit and Mr. Basketball finalist Sonny Wilson. He will give the team a chance against anyone as evidenced by his heroics in the Catholic League Championship, where he dropped 31 points against an elite defender in Curtis Williams. The effort wasn’t enough to beat Rice then, but it will have to be for the playoffs, where U of D and Brother Rice are on a crash course to meet each other in the regional semifinal. Wilson references the importance of “rebounding and getting back in transition defense” as well as “playing with the same effort the whole game” rather than “late in the 3rd” as they did in previous games. If the Cubs want to avoid an 0-4 record against their rivals, they will need big games out of Zavier Banks and Leroy Blyden, who have been strong secondary scorers all season. They are led by one of the most experienced and successful coaches in the state, Pat Donnelly, who will need to draw up a game plan that puts pressure on Rice’s ball handlers and creates opportunities for points in transition. To get there, they will have to take care of business in districts first. If they do so, they are as prepared as ever to make this playoff run. Battle-tested throughout the season in the CHSL and led by arguably the best player in Michigan, U of D will look to finally get over the hump. 

While this may appear to just be a list of the top-ranked teams, there is a reason they are up there. These teams have dominated high school basketball all season. They are all quite well-tested and loaded with talent. I believe that while there are many strong teams, the state title winner will come from this group. 

The Tough Outs

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This list includes the teams that others may overlook due to their record or state ranking. I believe they could be any of the contenders’ nightmares, especially if they match up early, which some of them will.

St. Mary’s Eaglets (10-10)

Off the bat, St. Mary’s record may jump out. How could a team with a .500 record be a tough out? Trey McKenney is the answer to that question. The star sophomore with D1 offers from almost the entire Big Ten has had an amazing season with a number of ridiculous scoring performances. These include a 37-point outing in an OT victory over U of D and a 33-point night in a narrow loss to Brother Rice. With him on the court, St. Mary’s will have a chance against anyone. With plenty of experience in tough games playing in the CHSL, they are prepared to play anyone tough, particularly Brother Rice, who they would meet in the district final, giving them a challenging early test. 

De La Salle Pilots (13-8)

De La Salle is another team with an underwhelming record that could make a deep run. Many forget that the Pliots are the reigning champions. While they have lost important players from that team, Nino Carter-Smith, and breakout star Phoenix Glassnor can both create offense at a high level from the backcourt. They also enter most games with the biggest player on the court in 6’8 center Michael Sulaka, who is a dominant paint presence. Like Mary’s, this team is prepared by hard games in the CHSL and has valuable playoff experience from past seasons. They are also the only team to defeat Brother Rice and did so with high-level defense, which takes heightened importance in a playoff setting. 

Detroit King Crusaders (13-9)

Losing Mr. Basketball winner Chansey Willis made a massive impact on this team. However, bringing in Catholic Central transfer Chas Lewless has softened that blow. He has played well all season and is getting hot at the right time. This team is not the contender they were last year. They have been very inconsistent and are without a win against a top-20 opponent all season. They make this list because of how well they have played against Cass Tech. Their two losses in these games came by 2 and 4 points. This choice is more of an upset alert than anything. King is set to play Cass in the district semifinal today and it is hard to beat a team three times. With Lewless’ play of late along with how close the previous matchups were, I would not be surprised if this team pulls off a shocking win and doesn’t look back. It should be a great game.

U of D’s Path to the Title

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U of D will have a challenging path to the state title. Placed in District 25, the Cubs face Berkley and assuming they get the job done there, will face the winner of Oak Park and Rennaisance, both top 50 teams. However, the real test would come in regionals, where, if everyone on the other side of the bracket takes care of business, U of D would face Brother Rice and then North Farmington. Wilson states the importance of using his experience for leadership: “going to the game, you got that experience, you’ve been there before.” After some disappointing losses and a season cut short by COVID, Wilson is hungry to win in his final year. The team will need to rally behind his play to go far, and I believe they are capable of doing just that. The run starts Wednesday night against Berkley, and hopefully won’t end until the trophy is lifted at Breslin Center in East Lansing in a couple weeks.