Corona del Sol didn't have an easy time repeating as Division I boys basketball champs last season. It won all four of its tournament game by a total of 14 points. Standout guard Casey Benson lost many of the surrounding players that helped forge the first title in 2012 when he was a sophomore. Last year it was more of an unsung, blue-collar group led by Benson that prevailed with clutch performances and a little luck.
The Great Expectation as state tournament play opens this week: Corona should/will have no trouble winning a third consecutive state title against a field — other than the Aztecs — that would otherwise be a donnybrook among half a dozen, maybe more teams. If Corona prevails it would equal a feat accomplished in state big-school lore just seven years ago by Mesa Mountain View (2005-2006-2007). The Mountain View three-peat was led by former collegians Harper Kamp and Kendall Wallace.
Is there any way can Corona be knocked off in its bid for a three-peat with one of most talented lineups the state has seen? Don't think so. But a bunch of other teams would like nothing more than to be remembered as the team that took down the 2013-2014 Corona juggernaut.
Here's an overview of the tournament with matchups, some darkhorses, who's hot, who's not and other notes in the battle for D-I supremacy. The tournament opens Thursday (Feb. 20), continues with the round of 16 on Saturday (Feb. 22) and concludes the following week with games Feb. 27 (quarterfinals), Feb. 28 (semifinals) and March 1 (championship).
Thursday Feb. 20 1st-round matchups: #17 Desert Ridge at #16 Desert Mountain (winner at #1 Corona del Sol); #24 Ironwood at #9 Mesa Mtn. View (winner at #8 Highland); #21 Deer Valley at #12 Mesa (winner at #5 Sunnyslope); #20 Cesar Chavez at #13 Red Mountain (winner at #4 Perry); #19 Central at #14 Apollo (winner at #3 Pinnacle); #22 Carl Hayden at #11 Chaparral (winner at #6 Gilbert); #23 St. Mary's at #10 Westview (winner at #7 Hamilton); #18 Chandler at #15 Desert Vista (winner at #2 Dobson). FAVORITE: Corona del Sol (29-1). Can you say prohibitive favorite. The school that has Benson for the fourth straight year added transfers Dane Kuiper and Connor MacDougall. It already had returnees Cassius Peat, Jarret Givens and Russ Davis. Toss in freshman enrollee Alex Barcello for good measure and the Aztecs have been awesome the majority of the time, very good the rest. As mentioned earlier Corona won four games by 14 points total at state last year. This year's team has won its games by an average of 20 points. There have been a few single-digit victories (Chaparral, Dobson, Mesa Mountain View and Perry), but they've also crushed very good teams (Hamilton, Highland, Gilbert to name a few) by as much as 25 to 35. What amazes about Corona with all the individual talent in hand is how well they mesh for coach Sammy Duane Jr. Noone seems worried about being the star or to shine above another teammate. That chemistry plus the talent makes it difficult to see the Aztecs losing. Corona, however, does enter state with a close call behind it. Corona trailed Perry by 20 points last week in a super-sectional final and rallied for a one-point win. That tells Duane his club can dig itself out of a big hole, which hasn't happened to that extent in any of its other games save its loss to Findlay Prep. DARK HORSES: Going with the first-round bye teams in the bottom of the bracket and Perry. No. 3 Pinnacle (20-9) won't have an easy road. What the Pioneers do have is four-year standout Dorian Pickens, who has picked up his scoring some to boost the offense. Pickens forms a nice 1-2 punch with guard Trey Ingram. Pinnacle has depth and a solid starting group. The Pioneers face either Central or Apollo in their first game — it beat both during the seasion. After that the likes of Chaparral, Gilbert lurk. Chaparral has beaten Pinnacle twice. Both were close. No. 6 Gilbert gets the Carl Hayden-Chaparral winner first. Gilbert matches up well with most teams and has plenty of size and solid point guard in Anthony Bryant. The Tigers also could end up meeting Pinnacle in a later round. Gilbert has not played either this season, but closed out state last year beating Chaparral and losing to Pinnacle with most of the same players in the quarterfinals. No. 7 Hamilton has played under the radar with a lineup that plays good defense and doesn't include a household name like Benson, Pickens, (Jake) Toolson or (Michael) Humphries. Hamilton was blasted by Corona by 35 points after the Huskies opened with 13 wins. Its only other losses are to Gilbert and was upset by Central in super-sectional play. The Huskies also have a win over Dobson, a rematch that could take place in the quarterfinals. No. 2 Dobson found itself in late December and save a loss to Westwood almost two weeks ago has shocked many observers with its entry among the top contenders. The Mustangs are a three-point-shooting phenomenon. They have five players that have shot between 38 and 50 percent from three-point range. As a team have made nearly 280 3s and shoot 45 percent from long range. Live by the three, die by the three some say. True, but most teams prolific from beyond the arc have two maybe three players who are marksmen. It's difficult for all their trey shooters to be off the same game. Dobson has a close loss to Hamilton and two close wins over Pinnacle. They are teams Dobson could face to reach the final. No. 4 Perry (24-5) suffered but one loss until late January when it faced a stretch of games vs. Highland, Corona, Gilbert and Hamilton. The Pumas lost three of four and then bounced back in the super-sectional to nearly win it before bowing to Corona late. Perry has a good draw, but must beat (likely Sunnyslope) and Corona to reach the title game. No doubt Perry has been battle-tested most recently and the last loss top Corona has to be a confidence boost. ODDS AND ENDS: Here are records of the top-10 seeded teams when playing against teams seeded 1-12 in the tournament: Corona del Sol (9-0); Hamilton (4-2); Dobson (4-4); Highland (4-4); Gilbert (3-3); Perry (3-4); Pinnacle (2-3); Sunnyslope (0-1); Westview (0-3); Mesa Mtn. View (0-5). The last teams other than St. Mary's to win the D-I (big school) title were Mountain View (2011) and North (2010). WHO'S HOT: Corona del Sol has won 16 games in a row. Dobson and Chaparral four in a row. PLAYERS TO WATCH: Casey Benson, Dane Kuiper, Corona; Michael Humphrey, Sammy Barnes-Thompkins, Sunnyslope; Ryan Richardson, Kodi Justice, Dobson; Zach Evans, James Sosinski, Hamilton; Anthony Bryant, Gilbert; Markus Howard, Jordan Howard, Perry; Dorian Pickens, Trey Ingram, Pinnacle; Jake Toolson, Highland; Payton Dastrup, Mesa Mtn. View.
(Teams and fans can now download the state basketball tournament programs for free. Photos and rosters of each team and stories previewing each basketball state tournament will be in the programs.
The programs will be available to view this week here: http://www.aia365.com/programs.)