Stanley Johnson is trying to lead Mater Dei to its fourth consecutive state… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
There are five weeks left in the high school basketball season before teams compete for a state title March 28-29 in Sacramento, and here are the story lines to follow as the City Section and Southern Section playoff contenders move into high gear:
The Stanley Johnson coronation: Miami has King James and Santa Ana is about to get King Stanley, as in Stanley Johnson, the Santa Ana Mater Dei All-American trying to lead the Monarchs to a fourth consecutive state championship. No opponent has figured out how to deal with the 6-foot-7 Johnson, who has led Mater Dei to a 27-0 record.
Whether Mater Dei wins or not, Johnson is going down as one of the best players in Southern California prep basketball history.
The Open Division towers over everything: The Southern Section's new 16-team Open Division boys' playoffs brings together the best of the best, and it's going to overwhelm the other 11 divisions. When you have Bellflower St. John Bosco meeting Los Angeles Loyola and Riverside North taking on Chatsworth Sierra Canyon in first-round games Friday night, it makes the other divisions look like peewee competition.
The looming rematch: From the first games in November, Westchester and Woodland Hills El Camino Real have been pointing toward a City Section Division I championship rematch. The Comets won last season, 65-59. On March 8 at L.A. Southwest College, the two teams are expected to face off again.
Most interesting will be the expected matchup of future WCC rivals: Westchester's Elijah Stewart, headed to Loyola Marymount, taking on El Camino Real's Evan Wardlow, headed to Santa Clara. Bring the cameras, because the intensity level will be sky high.
The little school tries to beat the big schools: Tiny L.A. Windward has the state's best female player, UCLA-bound point guard Jordin Canada. She'll be trying to dribble, pass and exhort her teammates past powerhouses Mater Dei and Long Beach Poly in the Open Division girls' playoffs.
This season's Hoosiers wannabe: Sherman Oaks Buckley is 28-0 and seeded No. 1 in the 4AA playoffs, but no one expects the Griffins to win the championship in a weakened division that still includes San Juan Capistrano JSerra, Encino Crespi, Studio City Harvard-Westlake and Westlake Village Oaks Christian. The Griffins will try to pull off the surprise behind 6-3 junior Austin Butler, who's averaging 15 points a game.
The rise of Sylmar in Division II: Sylmar Coach Bort Escoto has been on his best behavior, getting zero technicals in the regular season for the first time in 19 years of coaching. Perhaps that will help the Spartans conquer City Section Division II, where the top-seeded Spartans probably will have to get past streaking Verdugo Hills, which has won a school-record 17 consecutive games.
The Orange County comeback: Orange County basketball is supposedly weak, considering only Mater Dei was picked for the Open Division playoffs. Get ready for some revisionist history after El Toro (1A), Anaheim Canyon (2AA), Sonora (2A), Santa Margarita (3AA) and JSerra (4AA) win titles. The lesson learned: Avoid the Open Division.
Welcome back: When the Open Division playoffs are completed, most of the participants are going to be sent back to their previous divisions to compete in the state playoffs. That's going to create some uncomfortable, unpredictable situations, such as a section champion being the underdog to a team that lost twice in the Open Division. Don't be surprised to see a team or two in Sacramento that didn't win its section title.
Last point guard left standing: It has been the year of the point guard, and this is the time of the season when standout point guards begin to deliver big baskets and clutch free throws to win games. It will be intriguing to see who's the last point guard standing at the end of March after all the madness is finished.
Will it be Jordan McLaughlin of Etiwanda? Tyler Dorsey of St. John Bosco? Sedrick Barefield of Corona Centennial? Mater Dei's Johnson?