Last season, Saugus High School, a wild-card team, beat the odds to win the 3-A boys' basketball championship. Such an upset might not occur this season, but the 3-A division is a wide-open race. And an Orange County team has the best chance of emerging as the 3-A champion on March 5.
"This is very much an Orange County-type conference," Sunny Hills Coach Steve White said. "I don't recall another year where there were so many county teams seeded."
Sunny Hills (20-3) is seeded second. Two Sea View League teams, No. 1 Saddleback (22-4) and No. 3 Tustin (20-5), also are seeded. Only the fourth seeded team, Rolling Hills (18-6), is from outside Orange County. And a handful of county teams--Los Alamitos (19-6), Kennedy (17-7), Fullerton (14-9), Savanna (21-4) and Estancia (15-12)--are unseeded but should be serious contenders.
Saddleback, which is led by senior Gylan Dottin--perhaps the county's best all-around player, averaging 17.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game--has definitely earned its No. 1 berth.
"They're my pick," said Estancia Coach Tim O'Brien, who guided Tustin to the quarterfinals last season. "We lost to them four times this season. They're playing good basketball, they're big and strong and good athletes. I don't mean to put a monkey on anybody's back, but it's going to take a big effort to beat them."
Saddleback, which will play host to Burbank (16-7) in the opening round Friday, didn't make the playoffs last season. But this season, the Roadrunners--using a fast-break offense and a pressing defense--won their first league title in 21 years, and have the best record, 22-4, in the division.
Saddleback's four losses came to some of Orange County's top teams: a double-overtime loss to Mater Dei; a one-point loss to Woodbridge on a last-second shot; a loss to top-ranked Capistrano Valley, which the Roadrunners beat earlier in the season; and a Sea View League loss to Tustin.
"We've loosened up and are playing very well," Coach Pat Quinn said. "Our kids are in such good shape physically, most of our guys could play two full-court games in one night and still be OK."
And the Sea View League is obviously a good training ground for the playoffs. Tustin's Leo Parker, B. LeSean London and Brad Cantrell, all return from last season's team that made it to the quarterfinals. And third-place Estancia, though finishing with a 14-12 record, beat a number of good teams, including Los Alamitos, La Quinta, Marina and Laguna Hills.
Second-seeded Sunny Hills, whose last playoff appearance was in the semifinals in 1981, stormed through the Freeway League tournament, beating Fullerton in the final, 85-42. But the Lancers are entering the playoffs with a handicap. Senior Chris Drakos has been declared academically ineligible and will miss the playoffs. Drakos, averaging 9.3 assists, is the emotional leader of the team.
"It (losing Drakos) will affect us in some way," White said. "But the guys coming in want to show that they're hungry. They want to see how they can do."
Unseeded but definitely a contender is well-balanced Los Alamitos (19-6), which went undefeated in Empire League. In the opening round, the Griffins will face Fullerton, which they beat, 81-65, earlier in the season.
Los Alamitos has the essentials: a true point guard in Brett Pagett, who is averaging 7.8 assists a game; a dominating big man in Dre Lamoureux, shooting 63% and averaging 20.8 points, and strong rebounding in both Lamoureux (13.5 rebounds per game) and Tony Ware (7.1).
"Everybody is healthy and playing hard, and that's all you can ask for," Los Alamitos Coach Steve Brooks said. "Saddleback may be just a tad above everyone else, but after them there are 10 or 12 teams that are right in there. The playoffs are very, very even."