Boys state hoops playoffs preview: Clarkston could challenge U-D Jesuit in Division 1

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Junior center Matt Nicholson averages a double-double for Clarkston, at 13.6 points and 12.6 rebounds per game.

Clarkston is the surprise story of the 2018-19 season, piling up 17 straight wins after starting the season with consecutive losses to Sterling Heights Stevenson and Pontiac.

After winning back-to-back Class A state championships with Mr. Basketball award winner Foster Loyer (Michigan State) leading the way, Clarkston was expected to have a rebuilding season since it lost its entire eight-man rotation, including 6-foot-9 center Taylor Currie (Wisconsin) along with legendary head coach Dan Fife.

Well, Clarkston — ranked No. 5 in The News Super 20 poll — repeated as OAA Red champs and is now looking to again make some noise with a freshman backcourt, along with 7-foot junior center Matt Nicholson, leading the way.

That freshman backcourt consists of 6-2 Fletcher Loyer, the younger brother of Foster Loyer, and Keegan Wasilk, the nephew of first-year head coach Tim Wasilk, who was Fife’s assistant coach in past years.

More: Boys basketball state tournament: Monday’s district schedule

While Loyer (17.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists) and Wasilk (11.6 points, 4.4 rebounds) have played well — Loyer shooting 45.3 from 3-point range — it is Nicholson (13.6 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.2 blocks) who has made the biggest impact on both sides of the court, giving his team second-chance opportunities while blocking or altering shots at the other end of the court.

How well has Clarkston been playing? After a 47-45 win at North Farmington on Jan. 3, Clarkston has won its last 10 games by an average of 20 points.

“Our guard play been pretty good, and Matt’s getting better inside,” Tim Wasilk said. “I just know that teams are ready for us, and teams want a piece of us. I know it’s a cliché, but we’re just looking at Rochester Adams (district opener Monday), one game at a time, and hopefully we can make a run.

“Fletcher and Keegan both have a ton of confidence. They’ve played a lot of basketball and have a high basketball IQ. It’s off the charts as far as their confidence and basketball IQ, so you feel pretty comfortable going into games that you’ll at least have a chance to compete and get a win. ...

“Matt does a good job defensively, not only playing inside against post players, but coming out on the perimeter. He moves well and obviously has great length so stepping out on the perimeter and guarding people as well, really anticipates where the ball is going to go on the next pass. It’s nice to have him behind ready to cover up mistakes that we make.”

Clarkston could make another trip to the Breslin Center on March 15-16 for the Division 1 Final Four, but it will be in the underdog role this time around.

U-D Jesuit — 18-2 and ranked No. 3 — will be the team to beat with a talented lineup that includes 6-4, 220-pound forward Daniel Friday, 6-10 center Jalen Thomas, 6-6 junior forward J.T. Morgan and the backcourt of Jordan Montgomery, Caleb Hunter and point guard Julian Dozier.

Cass Tech is capable of making a deep run, as is KLAA champion Canton, Ann Arbor Pioneer and Ypsilanti Lincoln, which won its first league title in 15 years with 6-8 freshman phenom Emoni Bates (30 points, 10.3 rebounds) leading the way.

Cass Tech, the PSL champion, will be playing rival Detroit King at 7 p.m. Monday in the district opener at Detroit Western. The teams split its PSL series, but King has won just four of its final seven games, falling to No. 5 Clarkston, No. 20 Detroit Renaissance in a PSL semifinal and No. 14 Ann Arbor Pioneer.

No. 17 Ypsilanti Lincoln has a potential district semifinal meeting with Ypsilanti on Wednesday night at Belleville and a possible title bout with Ann Arbor Pioneer on Friday if the teams advance. Lincoln swept the regular-season series with Ypsilanti, ending Ypsilanti’s nine-year run as SEC White champs.

Muskegon could definitely make its way to East Lansing for the Final Four, winning its last 13 games by an average of 23.5 points to move up to No. 11 in the rankings with transfer Jarvis Walker making a big impact.

Muskegon Reeths-Puffer ended Muskegon’s 58-game conference (O-K Black) winning streak, 63-59, in overtime Jan. 15, but with Walker in the lineup and scoring 28. Muskegon avenged the loss with a 63-28 win Feb. 12.

Defending champion: Clarkston (two-time)

Favorite: U-D Jesuit

Contender: Clarkston

Dark horse: Detroit Cass Tech

Toughest district: at Belleville with Ypsilanti Lincoln, Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor Pioneer, Ann Arbor Huron, Belleville and Saline competing in it.

Final Four: Clarkston over Detroit Cass Tech, U-D Jesuit over Muskegon

Championship game: U-D Jesuit over Clarkston

Player to watch: U-D Jesuit senior point guard Julian Dozier who is playing his best basketball this past month.

Division 2

Romeo Weems leads New Haven in the the playoffs, where its chasing its second state title in three seasons.

Mr. Basketball front-runner Romeo Weems wants another state championship before he heads on to DePaul, helping New Haven earn its first state title when it won the Class B crown in 2017 before getting beat by Grand Rapids Catholic Central in last year’s state semifinals.

New Haven will have to get past some big tests to get the job done, including a possible quarterfinal showdown with unbeaten Harper Woods Chandler Park, then a potential semifinal matchup with River Rouge and title bout with defending Class B state champion Benton Harbor and its 6-6 junior standout Carlos “Scooby” Johnson.

New Haven has an outstanding 1-2 punch with senior guard Ronald Jeffery (21.1 points) joining Weems.

“My senior year I want to go out big and get another state championship and I think we have the team to do it,” said Weems, who averages 28.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 4.5 steals, 4.2 assists and 2.8 blocks. “I’ve been double-teamed and triple-teamed every game, but I think it improved my game, made me more patient. I know it’s coming and I can find my open guys. It makes my teammates’ game a little bit more easy, because I’m getting double-teamed so somebody’s open.

“Ronald (Jeffery) helps me out because he can knock down shots and he’s a quick guard who causes problems defensively. We have the ability to force multiple turnovers by pressuring teams and turning them into transition baskets.”

Benton Harbor is ranked No. 1, New Haven No. 2 and River Rouge, No. 4, and don’t forget No. 7 Williamston (19-1), No. 8 Bridgeport (20-0) and No. 13 Grand Rapids Catholic Central, who all should be playing during the final week of the season for the right to advance to Breslin.

 Lamonta Stone returned to River Rouge this season to try and help his alma mater win its 15th state championship and first since he guided River Rouge to its second consecutive Class B state title in 1999.

River Rouge advanced to the Class B state semifinals in 2017 and ’18, only to lose both times, last year to Benton Harbor.

River Rouge is loaded with talent and experience with 6-1 Nigel Colvin, 6-4 Donovan Freeman, 6-6 Micah Parrish, 6-6 Dan Few, point guard Bralin Toney and 6-7 Legend Geeter, who is considered to be one of the top sophomores in the state, all hoping to get another chance of playing on the big stage.

Defending champion: Benton Harbor

Favorite: Benton Harbor

Contender: New Haven

Dark horse: River Rouge

Toughest district: At Allegan with Hudsonville Unity Christian (18-2), Holland Christian (16-4) and Hopkins (15-4) in the field.

Final Four: Benton Harbor over Bridgeport; New Haven over River Rouge

Championship game: New Haven over Benton Harbor

Players to watch: Benton Harbor 6-6 junior Carlos “Scooby” Johnson/New Haven 6-7 senior Romeo Weems, with both players trying to earn their second state championship.

Division 3

Flint Beecher has one of the top 1-2 punches in the state in junior guards Jalen Terry (30 points) and Earnest Sanders (20 points).

Terry, who has multiple Big Ten offers, including one from Michigan State, played a role in Beecher’s state championship in 2017 and is ready to lead Beecher to another one.

Terry (30 points) and Sanders (20) combined for 50 points in a 70-69 loss to U-D Jesuit back in late January.

Defending Class C state champion Detroit Edison lost three Division 1 players from its team — Gary Solomon, Pierre Mitchell and Deante Johnson — but reloaded and will be a threat to repeat with 6-5 Brian Taylor, Raynard Williams and 6-6, 230-pound junior Bryce George doing some damage inside to help earn wins over No. 9 Canton and No. 1 Benton Harbor.

Taylor scored 25, Williams had 23 points and 10 rebounds and George 15 points in that win over Benton Harbor.

Another team to look out for is Hanover-Horton with 6-5 junior Luke Laketa, 6-3 junior Rhett Laketa — Luke’s twin – 6-4 junior Jack Brockie, 6-2 senior Donovan Kennedy and junior guard Mitch Sauber all averaging between nine and 14 points.

Hanover-Horton (19-1) came back from a 20-2 deficit to defeat Bates and Lincoln 78-73 on Tuesday.  

“We don’t have a star, but we have a lot of really good players, guys who can dribble, pass and shoot, who play well together and do a great job of sharing the ball and not turning it over,” Hanover-Horton 20th-year head coach Chad Mortimer said. “We average 20 assists and only nine turnovers, and had just eight turnovers against Lincoln which picked us up fullcourt.”

Detroit Pershing (16-2) is another team capable of making a deep run, led by the Hill brothers: freshman guard Tharren Hill and senior guard Paire Hill.

Defending champion: Detroit Edison

Favorite: Flint Beecher

Contender: Detroit Edison

Dark horse: Hanover-Horton

Toughest district: at Reading, with Quincy (17-3) and Hanover-Horton (19-1) in the field.

Final Four: Flint Beecher over Iron Mountain, Hanover-Horton over Pewamo-Westphalia.

Championship game: Flint Beecher over Hanover-Horton

Player to watch: Flint Beecher junior guard Jalen Terry, who is averaging 30 points a game and has multiple Big Ten offers, including one from Michigan State.

Jon Sanders (10) has Southfield Christian back in the state title hunt, despite the team losing two starters who transferred.

Division 4

Like Clarkston, Southfield Christian (14-6) is another special story, enjoying another strong season despite losing its backcourt to transfers, four-star guard Harlond Beverly to nationally ranked Monteverde Academy in Florida and Caleb Hunter to U-D Jesuit.

Instead of struggling, Southfield Christian veteran coach Josh Baker has developed a backcourt consisting of 6-0 senior Jon Sanders, 6-3 junior DaJion Humphrey, 5-10 junior Noah Rheker and 5-10 junior point guard Rahmon Scruggs.

Sanders averages a team-high 17 points, Rheker averages 13 points, connecting on 44 percent of his 3-pointers, and Scruggs averages eight points and six assists.

“We have a great group of kids,” Baker said. “We started 2-5, lost a bunch of close games, and have won a lot since then. We have three guys who are shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range and I haven’t had that in my previous seven years. I think we’re one of a couple of teams that can win it (state championship). We’re used to playing against great competition."

Brimley and Bellevue are unbeaten and could make deep runs and fans will be keeping a close eye on Marcellus Howardsville Christian 6-0 senior guard Dylan Jergens, who is averaging 40.8 points a game after averaging 31 points last season when Howardsville Christian finished 20-6, defeating Bellevue in the regional final before a quarterfinal loss to Hillsdale Academy.

Defending champion: Southfield Christian

Favorite: Brimley

Contender: Southfield Christian

Dark horse: Marcellus Howardsville Christian

Toughest district: State-ranked Martin (13-3) and Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (17-3) playing in district at Tri-unity Christian.

Final Four: Southfield Christian over Brimley, Bellevue over Big Rapids Crossroads

Championship game: Southfield Christian over Bellevue

Player to watch: Marcellus Howardsville Christian senior guard Dylan Jergens, who averages 40.8 points a game and is chasing the state’s all-time scoring record held by Jay Smith of Mio.