It’s as perennially predictable a question as you can ask.
Which boys basketball team is the favorite to win the 61st District title next February?
The answer is just about as certain as purple Ranunculus flowers blooming in the spring. Bath County boys basketball coach Bart Williams doesn’t dilly-dally before answering.
“Probably the same answer you’ve gotten for the last 30 years,” Williams said. “I think you’ve always got to give the nod to Rowan (County). Coach (Shawn) Thacker does a great job over there.”
Ask for Fleming County’s Chris Stapleton’s pick. He defers to Williams’ opinion.
“I’ll give the Bart Williams answer, which is Rowan County,” Stapleton said. “ … They’re the champ until somebody beats ’em.”
Dethroning Rowan County is a humongous undertaking, and not just because Bath County, Fleming County and Menifee County all had sub-.500 records last year. The Vikings have won the last five districts, the most in a row since Rowan County did it from 2005-07 and now-62nd District member Morgan County won three from 2002-04.
Last season should’ve been the rebuilding year.
Instead, the Panthers won seven of their first nine games, but they dropped eight of their last nine and finished 11-19.
Sophomore Larkin McKee is the starting point guard. His surname should be familiar — older Bryson McKee was a member of the 2013 and ’14 teams that won the 16th Region.
“Larkin’s been with me for three years,” Stapleton said. “We put him up as an eighth-grader, so he’s been around. He knows the system, came off the bench and started for us halfway through last year.”
The Panthers are not bereft of offense — senior guard Kaleb Flanery averaged 13 points a game. A concern is, there are no other returning double-figure scorers. (McKee and junior Landon Lutz are next next at 5.6.)
Senior forward Sam Johnson had surgery this summer to repair a broken ankle. He said he was about 60% of full speed.
“I definitely feel that by the end of December I’ll be entirely ready to play,” Johnson said.
Fleming County is 22-39 over the last two seasons, but Stapleton thinks there’s a nascent winning culture.
“It’s been nice that these kids have had the same coach for three years, and that culture has started to change,” Stapleton said. “They know what to expect and the way we want to carry ourselves and play.”
Johnson offered a significantly more succinct summary.
“It starts with us,” he said.
The Wildcats have not hoisted a district trophy since 2009. Last year’s squad struggled to 12-21, which included a 1-9 finish.
Williams doesn’t sound concerned about others’ opinions about his team; he knows Owingsville is on the fringe of the 16th Region and not close to the 10th. Instead, he touts his team reaching the last three regional tournaments.
With seven seniors and six juniors, Bath County is one of the most experienced teams in the 16th Region. That sounds good, but the two top scorers and rebounders, Chandler Otis and Jake Porter, are gone.
“On paper it looks like we lost a lot from last year, as we lost several really good players,” Williams said. “It’s gonna be hard to replace some of those guys, but you know, we feel like this is a totally different team.
“I don’t think a lot of people are giving us much respect,” he said. “If you look at preseason rankings and things like that, which mean nothing, I’ve not seen our name in the top 10 in the 16th (Region). We kinda feed on that.”
The coach’s son, senior Brooks Williams, was the third-highest scorer a season ago at 7.0 points a game.
Other than reaching the regional for the fourth straight year, Williams is not one to set big goals. Still, there’s one he unabashedly touts.
“Only one other group of seniors since 1977 has played in the regional tournament three years in a row,” Williams said. “ … We feel like we belong. We don’t feel like people look down on our schedule and circle Bath County as an easy, automatic win.”
First, the gruesome details: the Wildcats finished 9-22, gave up a little more than 71 points a game and scored just more than 64.
Assistant coach Michael Adams said those numbers are deceptive.
“It was a long season, but if you look at it, some of our games that we had, we were in a lot of games last year, a lot of close ones,” Adams said. “These guys have taken the step this summer, this offseason, and really started putting in the work.”
Menifee County dropped 13 of its last 16. Four were close: a pair of seven-point setbacks to Fleming County; a 60-57 failure against Rowan County; a 66-61 home debacle Feb. 9 against Raceland (senior Dalton Martin scored 18 points); and a 64-62 loss Feb. 15 at Williamstown.
“Usually, for whatever reason, we start off slow, have a huge third quarter,” Adams said. “If we can learn — and I tell these guys all the time, and so does (head coach) Tim Swartz — if we could just figure out how to put a solid four quarters together … we have a shot to be in the game to win it.”
Adams calls his team “pretty senior-heavy this year.” It is — six begin their final high school season, the most since the sextet who played in 2017-18.
“The difference, though, this year is there’s five of us that I’ve played with since I was 7 or 8,” senior point guard Dalton Martin said. “ … Since we’ve played so long together, our IQs are kinda similar. We move the ball fast and well.”
Senior Ty Ledford thinks another obstacle is negatively perceptional.
“Menifee, we usually don’t usually get looked at like other programs do,” Ledford said. “We don’t win a lot of games.”
Menifee County is also a guard-heavy group. Martin, Ledford, junior Joseph Davis and freshman Eli Johnson are all point guards. Seniors Ethan Fugett and Ben Rose and sophomore Alexander Craft are wing players, and senior Zach Clemons is the center.
Martin said because the Wildcats are more height-challenged than previous versions, boxing out on both boards and hurrying the ball up-court are much more important. He also said being small can be an advantage.
“It also lets us move the ball a little bit quicker, and it doesn’t stick,” Martin said. “The ball doesn’t stick to anybody; everybody’s pretty OK with giving it up.”