River Rouge moved up a class from Division 2 to Division 1 this season and the Panthers hope their journey ends at the Breslin Center on March 28, playing for their first state championship in more than 20 years.
Coach Lamonta Stone led River Rouge to the Division 2 state title game last season, falling to Hudsonville Unity Christian, 58-55.
River Rouge is 19-1 and ranked No. 1 in The Detroit News Super 20, with wins over defending Division 1 state champion No. 8 Ypsilanti Lincoln (63-53) and the nation’s top player in Emoni Bates, and Benton Harbor (68-62) and Mr. Basketball finalist Carlos “Scooby” Johnson (Butler). Its lone loss was to No. 13 Grand Rapids Catholic Central (63-60, OT) in late December.
River Rouge has won 14 state championships, the most recent in 1999 under the direction of Stone when the late Brent Darby scored 32 in a Class B title win over Cheboygan.
Stone is happy with how his team is playing heading into the state tournament, which gets underway Monday with district play.
“This is our first time in Division 1 so it’s a unique experience,” Stone said. “In Division 2 you know the teams. … We have a tough road. We’re really defending well, and that’s not to say our offense isn’t good, but I think we’re defending at a championship level. This group is understanding the game plan and things we need to do to stop certain kids.”
River Rouge will be challenged early and often with a possible showdown with No. 5 Detroit Cass Tech – the PSL champ – Friday night in the district final at Dearborn Fordson. River Rouge has a first-round bye and will face Melvindale (6-14) in a district semifinal Wednesday.
River Rouge definitely has the talent to reach Breslin, but still shy of the loaded team U-D Jesuit had last year when it lost to Ypsilanti Lincoln in the Division 1 title game.
River Rouge is led by the trio of 6-foot-8, 225-pound junior Legend Geeter (16 points, 8.5 rebounds), junior guard Keyshawn Devlin, who is averaging 18 points and 49 percent shooting from 3-point range, and point guard Ahomni Weston, with a solid supporting cast that includes Brent Darby Jr.
“Ahomni Weston, this is his first season on the ball and he’s gotten better and better, and now at this point of the season he’s an extension of me, a coach on the floor,” Stone said.
“Legend is averaging 16 points but he sees double teams, so I try not to keep him around the basket, try to put him out on the perimeter a little bit, which makes it harder to double team him. It’s opened up our perimeter shooting and Keyshawn Devlin is having a phenomenal year, shooting 49 percent from 3-point range.”
This is a wide-open race for the title with No. 2 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s – the Catholic League and city champions – No. 3 Clarkston, No. 4 Ann Arbor Huron, Cass Tech and Ypsilanti Lincoln all threats to make long tournament runs.
St. Mary’s has the premier backcourt in the state with Wisconsin-bound Lorne Bowman (25.2 points, six rebounds, six assists) joining 6-3 four-star junior Julian Roper, sophomore point guard Kareem Rozier and sophomore Jason Drake, but can coach Todd Covert get enough rebounding from the likes of 6-8 junior Peter Nwoke? St. Mary’s built a 44-25 lead over Cass Tech in the Operation Friendship game at Calihan Hall before pulling out a 70-65 win in overtime, making 31-35 free throws, 15-of-18 in OT.
St. Mary’s owns wins over Clarkston (68-55), Cass Tech, No. 10 Grand Blanc (69-66) and No. 20 Hudsonville (65-47) with its lone loss coming to No. 6 Flint Beecher (70-61) back in late January.
Expect free throws to be a huge factor in the tournament, especially in the case of Ypsilanti Lincoln, which missed 20-of-37 in its loss to River Rouge and had to go to overtime to defeat its rival Ypsilanti last month due to bad free-throw shooting.
Bates is averaging nearly 32 points, including 48 Thursday in an impressive 78-49 win over Grand Rapids Catholic Central. Lincoln is getting closer to finding the team chemistry needed for a long run after losing four starters from last year’s team.
Clarkston, which showcases a talented trio of 7-1 center Matt Nicholson (Northwestern), 6-4 sophomore Fletcher Loyer and 6-3 sophomore point guard Keegan Wasilk, has a lot to prove after getting knocked out in the districts by Rochester Adams last year.
Ann Arbor Huron is long and quick, a reason it defeated Lincoln 64-54 last Tuesday before nearly 5,000 fans at Eastern Michigan’s Convocation Center when 6-7 Mike Robinson blanked Bates, limiting him to 29 points on 8-of-27 shooting.
Huron coach Waleed Samaha has to be thrilled to have 6-5 junior guard Julian Lewis back in the lineup after missing multiple games with a hand injury. Junior guards Devin Womak and Tyson Edmondson are perimeter threats, with 6-7 junior Kingsley Perkins causing problems inside.
Cass Tech also has an outstanding backcourt in Mr. Basketball finalist Tyson Acuff, Kalen King and Kyle LeGreair.
Grand Blanc and No. 11 Muskegon are also dangerous, as are No. 15 Mt. Pleasant, No. 17 Wyoming, No. 18 Macomb Dakota, No. 19 East Lansing and Hudsonville.
Hamtramck has played River Rouge tough in a pair of losses and could come out on top in a district at Detroit King with Grosse Pointe South also in the field.
Division 1 breakdown
Defending champion: Ypsilanti Lincoln
Favorite: River Rouge
Contender: Orchard Lake St. Mary’s
Darkhorse: Ypsilanti Lincoln
Toughest district: At Dearborn Fordson with No. 1 River Rouge and No. 5 Cass Tech in the field, and with Saline hosting at EMU with No. 4 Ann Arbor Huron and No. 8 Ypsilanti Lincoln in the field, along with Ann Arbor Skyline, Belleville, Saline and Ann Arbor Pioneer.
Final Four: Orchard Lake St. Mary’s over River Rouge, Muskegon over Macomb Dakota
Championship game: St. Mary’s over Muskegon
Player to watch: Emoni Bates of Ypsilanti Lincoln, who can score in multiple ways.
Division 2 storylines
Benton Harbor will be the team to beat in Division 2 with a talented team led by the 6-6 Johnson, who was brilliant in a 73-51 win over Bates and Lincoln back in February in Grand Rapids.
“Carlos can dominate the game without scoring points; he is a playmaker with an amazing IQ,” said Benton Harbor coach Corey Sterling of Johnson, who had 17 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists in the one-sided win over Lincoln.
Benton Harbor, which won the Class B state championship in 2018, could have a possible quarterfinal matchup with Grand Rapids Catholic Central, which it beat in the 2018 state title game.
Four-star junior guard Pierre Brooks and Detroit Douglass could make a long run, as could Bridgeport with 6-3 junior point guard Jaylen Hodges, and Grand Rapids Christian.
And don’t be fooled by Ferndale’s 11-9 record. Coach Juan Rickman thinks his Ferndale team has been tested by a challenging schedule, which includes wins over Flint Beecher (66-55), North Farmington (52-48), Warren De La Salle (61-52), a sweep of West Bloomfield, and losses to Muskegon (67-66), Grand Blanc (71-64) and Clarkston (66-49).
“I feel like we’re trending in the right direction,” Rickman said. “We’re not careless with the ball as we were during most of the season. Our defense rotations have improved, and we’ve been rebounding well.
“Jayshawn Moore and Treyvon Lewis are playing at a high level right now and Colin Golson and Jaylen Daughtery have been steady all season. The key for us will be our guard play. If our perimeter players can guard the ball better, limit turnovers and consistently make sound decisions with the ball, then we should be right in the thick of it.”
Golson, a 6-6 forward who will play his college ball at Siena in New York, is averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds.
Division 2 breakdown
Defending champion: Hudsonville Unity Christian
Favorite: Benton Harbor
Contender: Grand Rapids Christian
Toughest district: At Bridgeport with Bridgeport and Frankenmuth in the field. The teams split their series, with Frankenmuth ending Bridgeport’s 53-game regular-season winning streak in a 43-38 win in February. Also, at Hudsonville Unity Christian, with 16-4 Unity Christian and 17-3 Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the field.
Final Four: Benton Harbor over Detroit Douglass, Ferndale over Bridgeport
Championship game: Benton Harbor over Ferndale
Player to watch: Carlos “Scooby” Johnson, who is a dominant all-around player.
Division 3 storylines
All the talk this season has been on Flint Beecher with the 1-2 punch of Mr. Basketball finalist Jalen Terry (Oregon) and 6-2 Earnest Sanders (Kentucky, football), and deservingly so.
But don’t count out Detroit Edison, which is 15-4 with multiple marquee victories over No. 9 Waterford Mott (61-47), PSL runnerup Detroit Douglass (62-49), Catholic League runnerup U-D Jesuit (67-60), Detroit King (58-46) and Grosse Pointe South (73-70), and close losses to Ann Arbor Huron (53-50), Ypsilanti Lincoln (75-68) and Clarkston (63-56).
Edison upset Beecher in the state quarterfinals last year before losing to Iron Mountain (60-57) in the semifinals. Edison could face Beecher in a state quarterfinal this season. Beecher won the Class C state title in 2017 and Edison was the champ in 2018.
“I feel like we’re very prepared for a good run,” said Edison coach Bo Neely. “I think we’re very battle tested, played every variety of team you can play. We’ve seen pretty much every defense and offense, so we’re prepared for anything coming at us.”
Edison has some size in athletic 6-7, 270-pound Bryce George (11 points, nine rebounds) and 6-5, 230-pound sophomore Calvin Marshall, who has averaged 17 points in the last nine games, making six 3-pointers against West Bloomfield and five 3s against Farmington.
Neely also has an outstanding backcourt in seniors Raynard Williams (16 points, eight rebounds), Khalil McCadoo and Vincent Cooley. McCadoo and Cooley share the point guard duties.
“Bryce George moves around really well, has always had great footwork, and I attribute that to playing soccer as a kid,” said Neely of George, who will play defensive end at Ferris State with Cooley playing receiver and cornerback for the Bulldogs. “Raynard has been consistent all season for us.”
Iron Mountain, Pewamo-Westphalia, Hanover-Horton, Ravenna and Schoolcraft are also teams capable of reaching the Breslin Center.
Division 3 breakdown
Defending champion: Pewamo-Westphalia
Favorite: Flint Beecher
Contender: Detroit Edison
Toughest district: At Ravenna with 14-5 North Muskegon and 20-0 host Ravenna in the field. Ravenna swept the series, including a 54-52 win Feb. 13 at North Muskegon.
Final Four: Detroit Edison over Iron Mountain, Hanover-Horton over Pewamo-Westphalia
Championship game: Detroit Edison over Hanover-Horton
Player to watch: Flint Beecher guard Jalen Terry, who can score in bunches, taking the ball to the basket, making the pull-up jumper or knocking down the 3-pointer. Beecher has also earned some statement wins, including a 76-62 win over Benton Harbor, a 70-61 victory over Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (70-61) and a 60-55 win over Flint Carman-Ainsworth.
Division 4 storylines
Southfield Christian is the two-time defending champions and the team to beat.
“I’m feeling good about us, but there are still things we need to continue to work on,” said Southfield Christian head coach Clennie Brundidge, who took over for Josh Baker when Baker moved on to join Nate Oats’ staff at Alabama. Brundidge had been Baker’s longtime assistant, guiding Southfield Christian to a Class D state championship in 2014 as interim head coach.
“We’re a defensive-oriented team, play straight man and press and do all of that stuff. DaJion Humphrey, Noah Rheker, Verian Patrick and Tarron Carter have really stepped up and played well for us.”
Humphrey, a 6-3 senior guard who will play next year at Holy Cross, averages a team-high 21 points with Rheker averaging 18, Carter, 12 and Patrick, 10.
Humphrey and Rheker played key roles in Southfield’s state championship run last year with Humphrey scoring 20 with five assists and Rheker scoring 10 in the 63-39 title game win over Frankfort.
Brundidge put together a challenging schedule with Southfield Christian earning wins over Detroit Edison (61-52), Birmingham Brother Rice (61-52), Detroit Country Day (59-56) and Dearborn Divine Child (68-66) and losing a close game to River Rouge (57-56) last Thursday.
Kingston, Dollar Bay, Hillsdale Academy, Pickford and Pellston also have the ability to make big runs this month.
Division 4 breakdown
Defending champion: Southfield Christian
Favorite: Southfield Christian
Darkhorse: Hillsdale Academy
Toughest district: Host Painesdale Jeffers has 18-2 Dollar Bay and 16-4 Chassell competing in the field. The teams split their series.
Final Four: Southfield Christian over Kingston, Dollar Bay over Hillsdale Academy
Championship game: Southfield Christian over Dollar Bay
Player to watch: DaJion Humphrey who has been a starter on Southfield Christian’s two state championship runs and is primed for another run in the weeks ahead.