4 p.m.: Boyd County vs. Newport CC
7 p.m.: Ashland vs. Sheldon Clark
8:30 p.m.: West Jessamine vs.
Historically, many Kentucky teams have used the Ashland Invitational Tournament as a stepping stone to the Sweet Sixteen.
This year promises more of the same, with three 16th Region contenders joined by an enticing group from five other regions.
The eight teams in the 58th annual AIT are a combined 58-21 — good for a .734 winning percentage.
“We feel it’s a very solid field again,” Ashland coach Buddy Biggs said. “What we want to do every year is make it a showcase by bringing the best seven (teams) we can find. It’s great for us. We have three home games against great competition.”
The show begins today at James A. Anderson Gymnasium and continues through Saturday.
The scheduled 2:30 p.m. opener between Henderson County — the preseason No. 2 team in the 2nd Region — and South Laurel has been cancelled.
Henderson County’s trip was delayed after western Kentucky was blanketed by several inches of snow this week.
“They are hopeful, based on the weather and projected forecast, to be here Friday and Saturday,” Ashland athletic director Mark Swift said Wednesday afternoon.
As a result, South Laurel will advance to meet the winner of tonight’s matchup at 7 between Ashland (7-2) and Sheldon Clark (7-1).
The loser of that game will play Henderson County in the consolation round Friday.
Today’s 4 p.m. first game matches Boyd County (7-5) against unbeaten Newport Central Catholic. West Jessamine (8-2) goes up against Russell (8-3) at 8:30.
Russell, Ashland and Boyd County were ranked 2-3-4 in the region’s preseason coaches’ poll. Each hopes to become the first 16th team to win the AIT since the Tomcats in 2001.
Ashland is looking to get back on track after setbacks against Lawrence County (79-74) and Boone County (71-69) at the Raceland Derby Classic. The Tomcats began the season with a seven-game winning streak, despite being hit hard by graduation losses.
Several team members have battled sickness over the past week and Wednesday’s practice marked Ashland’s first time back on the court.
“Overall, the guys are (feeling) a lot better than they were last week,” Biggs said. “I don’t know that we’re 100 percent. We didn’t have our legs or stamina at Raceland. We had a chance to win all three games, but didn’t capitalize the last two.”
While the Tomcats are disappointed about losing the last two times out, Biggs said the focus remains on the big picture.
“This is a young team that has to keep progressing every day,” he said. “Like I said before, if you would have told me a month ago that we would be 7-2 at this point, I would have said, ‘sign me up.’ It doesn’t feel as good because we lost the last two. But you have to give credit to Lawrence County and Boone County. They played well and deserved to win.”
Ashland has seven players averaging at least 6.2 points per game.
Sophomore center Dikembe Dixson leads the way with 17.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 59 percent from the field. Sophomore forward Nick Miller averages 15.3 points and five rebounds. Zach Hart is scoring at a 10.2 clip, while junior Steven Friley adds 8.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
The Tomcats, with four AIT runner-up finishes under Biggs since 2006, will pit their racehorse style against deliberate Sheldon Clark in the first round.
“It will be an interesting battle of tempo,” said Biggs, whose team has played only one home game so far. “They will want to slow it dow and run their stuff. They have a good little point guard in (Chase) Parsley. Dylan James is an outstanding eighth-grader and (Chase) Kirk is a good wing player.”
For Russell, coach Merle Kidwell and high-scoring senior Kyle Skaggs are happy for another AIT chance.
Kidwell has experienced the tournament as a coach for two different teams, and as a player, without tasting victory. Russell went 0-3 in 2010, with Skaggs sidelined by an injury.
“When I coached at Lewis County, we lost a close game to Ashland when they didn’t have a consolation bracket,” he said.
As a senior player at Lewis, Kidwell was named to the 1984 All-AIT team in another tight loss to the Tomcats.
Russell, like Ashland, is eager to get back on the court after consecutive losses to Scott and Harrison County in the Stop DWI Holiday Classic at Covington Holmes. The Red Devils made a huge comeback in the second half against Harrison County before falling 78-76.
“When you lose by 29 (to Scott), then are down 18 at the half you could pack it in,” Kidwell said. “Our guys didn’t do that.”
The Red Devils were missing part-time starter Steven Estep, while two top subs did not make the trip due to the flu. Russell’s only other loss this season came against 16th Region favorite Fleming County.
“Playing the competition we have played, I feel we are ready for this,” Kidwell said. “The AIT is a great tournament with great tradition. I’m glad we were placed in the night session. We take it as a compliment.”
Skaggs has been on a sizzling pace, averaging 29.5 points, and Jacob Porter leads a solid supporting cast.
Kidwell knows the Red Devils have their work cut out tonight. West Jessamine is riding a four-game winning streak and averages 5.4 three-pointers per contest. The Colts’ only setbacks came against Fleming County and Henry Clay.
Chase Fain, a 6-3 senior guard, carries an 18.9 scoring average, followed by Daulton Peters at 15.3.
Another of West Jessamine’s top players, junior guard Will Henderson, has strong family ties to Ashland’s program dating back a couple of generations.
His father, Bill Henderson, received all-AIT honors in 1978 when the Tomcats finished runner-up to Virgie. Will’s grandfather, Jerry Henderson, regarded as one of Ashland’s greatest all-around athletes, was an All-State player for Ashland’s 1954 team that placed third at the State Tournament.
Will Henderson comes into the AIT averaging 12.9 points and two rebounds per game for the Cardinals.
Boyd County, meanwhile, is hoping to build off a 2-2 finish in four tight games at the Twin Lakes Holiday Classic at Clinton County.
The Lions can lean on the leadership of several seniors and face a tall task against Newport Central Catholic, the preseason favorite in the Ninth Region.
After a couple of early two-point wins over Dixie Heights and Cooper, NCC has won each of its last five games by at least 20 points.
Henderson County, one of the top teams in the field, is off to a 9-2 start.
South Laurel, from the 13th Region, went 2-1 in the recent Peoples Bank Classic at Madison Southern to improve to 4-6.
Second-year Cardinals head coach Jeff Davis is a Fairview graduate. His father, Jerry, is helping out on the bench after serving as an assistant at Ashland and Fairview.
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2671.