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Three Powerful Teams Vie for 9th Region Boys Basketball Crown

There are three powerful teams heading into the this year's KHSAA 9th Region tournament and in the end, the winner will have proven to be battle-tested and mentally disciplined as it heads to the state tournament.

Holmes (26-5), Covington Catholic (26-2), and Newport Central Catholic (29-3) have stockpiled quality wins throughout the season, including victories over each other. Each has emerged as a force in the region and are in another class from the rest. Northern Kentucky will be treated to a display of high-grade basketball talent that starts Wednesday at 6:30 at the Bank of Kentucky Center.

The bracket is set up in Holmes' favor. They would avoid both the other heavy hitters until the final if the tournament follows its projection. Cov Cath and NewCath are expected to meet in the semi-final and then take on the Bulldogs the next night, should everything fall into place. 

The three teams at a glance:

Holmes

Holmes is coming off of an intense double-overtime marathon win over Cov Cath in the 35th District final, which has shaped up to be a formidable cross-town rivalry. The teams are 2-2 in their last four meetings that include half-court buzzer-beaters, double-overtimes, and a combined winning margin of only 20 points. Holmes has beaten the Colonels three times in seven years in the regional final and they could meet there again this year.

The Bulldogs are a team that looks best when running out in transition on both ends of the floor. There are times when their half-court sets consist of guards over-dribbling and resorting to forced looks, but they don't panic, even after bad turnovers or missed free-throws, and that composure often leads them to wins.

A lot of that sense of calm comes from James “Beetle” Bolden. The smoothness and confidence of his guard play is why the junior receives attention from the likes of Bob Huggins, but it's also the reason he sometimes gets into mini-funks during the game. Bolden has a feathery touch on runners, and his ability to get into the paint allows him to float these kinds of shots up there. He's also a very good outside shooter and a terrific ball-handler, but he doesn't always look confident in superstar mode when the whole building knows he's going to shoot. To his credit, though, he and big man Marcus Hill, proved to be the winning combination in the two overtimes in the District final.

His supporting cast is a sound one. Hill, and fellow forwards, Quinton Chames and dynamite sixth-man Rod Avery, are bothersome to the opposition as they provide a steady dose of shot-blocking presence and offensive-rebounding ability thanks to their length and quick leaping. The trio often gets multiple tip-in attempts—sometimes three or four in a possession—and each are hard-working players running the floor. It is not unusual to see one of these guys swat the ball into the third row on a lay-up attempt on a fast-break. Because of these attributes, however, they are easy to pump-fake and can land in foul-trouble due to their hustle.

The complimentary guards know their roles well, and when they stick to them, the team benefits. Armani Housely sometimes dribbles too much himself and gets rattled into turnovers. Markel McClendon is a steady hand while on the floor, but also tends to over-hustle and that leads to giveaways and fouls. In the District final, he was called on a crucial charge with four seconds of regulation when he jumped to pass. Still, it seems unfair to knock a kid for hustling too much because the same effort often leads to many good things as well.

Holmes is prone to come out of the gates cold, and this in part is because Bolden often lets the flow of the game find him before forcing its direction. Their quickness and length on defense, coupled with their superstar and second-chance scoring ability, the Bulldogs are a tough out for anyone. The key to beating them could be with size.

Newport Central Catholic

Perhaps the most well-rounded team among the three, NewCath has the size and shooting ability to beat anyone in the region. In fact, the Thoroughbreds went 17-0 this season against teams in their region, including one against Holmes.

A team like the Bulldogs—which typically enjoys an offensive-glass supremacy—are easily frustrated by the sheer size of NewCath's front court. Drew McDonald is a 6'7'' load, who can not only rebound, but has a soft shot from the outside. His partner is Jake Schult, an agile 6'5'' forward with nimble footwork and quality post moves. Sophomore forward Ben Weyer is also tall and active, but his skills are raw and a bit underdeveloped. All the same, this group can be an imposing sight for smaller teams, and their size and skill allow for an efficient high-low offense.

The back court only adds to the scheme's success. Tanner Moeves and Zach Pangallo are both polished guards that can shoot and play excellent parameter defense. As quality of shooters that they are, though, forcing the Thoroughbreds to take outside shots, usually from a zone defense, remains the way to attack NewCath.

NCC has won 21 straight games, and could easily be considered the tournaments best team. The other two will have their hands full against them.

Covington Catholic

Not to be forgotten are the Colonels who hadn't lost to a Kentucky team all season until the thriller against Holmes in the District final ended that streak. Cov Cath is a seasoned bunch led by senior point-guard Nick Ruthsatz, followed by his protege, freshman two-guard Cole VonHandorf.

Ruthsatz is the school's all-time leading scorer and is never afraid to call his own number. The Colonels are designed to run through him and he decides who gets the shot. He plays with a tremendous amount of activity and annoys his competitors with his intense energy from start to finish. He looks to get to the rim first, often on spin-moves, but hurts defenses with his three-point shooting ability when they back off. If he were to have a bad scoring night in a big game, it's hard to think the Colonels would survive without him.

Yet, they haven't lost only two games by accident. VonHandorf can find the rim himself and also diplays a fine shooting touch. He is excellent moving away from the ball and compliments Ruthsatz with his patience and poise. Cov Cath's front court also boast an effective tandem in forwards Bo Schuh and Mark Schult. Schuh had a monster game in the Divisional final, scoring in a variety of ways and keeping his team in the ball game. Schult is a hard-nosed rebounder with shooting range out to 15 feet and is a big fan of the head fake. The efforts of these two often go underrated next to the team's glitzy guard play.

The weakness to the Colonels are the lack of quality role players. Rarely does someone from the Cov Cath bench stand out during stretches of the game. If they encounter a matchup problem that requires an adjustment from the guards slashing to the hoop, this lack of flexibility in style of play could come back to haunt them. They like to run out to fast-breaks and keep the pedal down if possible, but Holmes showed how an equally fast back-court can limit the effectiveness of this philosophy.

In the end, it will be a battle for all three squads. Each has some special element to it that not only makes them a threat to win this tournament, but adds a certain legitimacy to being a state-tournament contender as well. It should be an entertaining affair with some highly-competitive action thanks to three well-built basketball programs. Whoever wins, will have truly deserved their trophy. 

Written by Bryan Burke, RCN contributor

Photo: Holmes vs. Cov Cath in 35th District final/RCN file by Brian Frey