With the best Inland Empire boys’ basketball teams placed in the top four divisions of the Southern Section playoffs, here’s a rundown of what to look for beginning with Friday’s first-round games.
Background: The Inland Empire is well known in this division. The region has sent a representative to the championship game the last three years. Long Beach Poly beat Corona Centennial last season, Mater Dei toppled Etiwanda the year before and Riverside King upset Mater Dei in 2009.
Best Shot: If third-seeded Etiwanda is to continue that trend, the Eagles will likely need to find a way to beat second-seeded Long Beach Poly. They lost to the Jackrabbits in the Division 1AA semifinals last season and again nine days later in the second round of the SoCal Regional playoffs. There are few high school coaches who squeeze more out of their players than Dave Kleckner at Etiwanda, however.
Best first-round game: Highland at Silverado. A good old- fashioned high desert showdown as 11th-seeded Silverado brings a 16-game winning streak into the postseason. The Hawks will need to find a way to slow Highland senior guard Joseph Prince, who is averaging 23.4 points. Prince, who played the last two seasons at Glenbrook North High in Northbrook, Ill., scored a season-high 37 points in the regular-season finale last week against Lancaster.
Darkhorse: Rancho Verde didn’t land on the same side of the bracket as top-seeded Mater Dei, so that can already be considered a victory. In the last three seasons, the Mustangs lost all four postseason meetings against Mater Dei, with three losses in the section playoffs and another in the SoCal Regionals. Rancho Verde is seeded 10th and drew a good challenge in the opener against visiting Montclair. A possible second-round game against seventh-seeded Eisenhower looms.
Background: A team from the I.E. has qualified for the semifinals in this division the last three seasons, Redlands East Valley a year ago, Colony in 2010 and Chino Hills in 2009. In the last final appearance by an I.E. team, Riverside King beat Etiwanda in the 2008 championship game at Honda Center.
Best Shot: The I.E.’s streak of semifinalists could be in serious jeopardy. The highest-seeded teams in this division are No. 7 Chino Hills and No. 10 Vista Murrieta, and they would meet in the second round should they win their openers. The good thing is, one I.E. team would be guaranteed a trip to the quarterfinals.
Best first-round game: Corona at Arroyo Valley. Both these teams have held their own against good competition this season. Corona tied for fifth in the highly competitive Big VIII League and Arroyo Valley finished runner up in the San Andreas League, losing both games to league champion Cajon by a combined six points.
Darkhorse: Vista Murrieta has shown it can reach up and bite a good team if they’re not paying attention. The Broncos beat Murrieta Valley by 13 points in a Southwestern League game last month and the Nighthawks are seeded third in Division 2A. Davin Guinn, a 6-5 senior forward for Vista Murrieta, is one of the top players in the division. He matched his season high with 32 points in the rematch against Murrieta Valley last week.
Background: In recent years, the I.E. has done very well in this division as well. Murrieta Valley won the title in 2010 with a victory against Compton. Summit lost in the semifinals of this division last season but took advantage of some upsets in the SoCal Regionals and advanced to the Division 2 state championship game. Colony also reached the finals in 2008, losing to Bishop Montgomery.
Best Shot: J.W. North is seeded third here and the Huskies are finally playing the type of basketball many expected coming into the season. The Huskies won the Big VIII title with a 12-2 record, winning their final four games. They have a starting five that stands 6-0, 6-4, 6-5, 6-5, and 6-8. Second-seeded Canyon Country Canyon might have trouble matching up with that size, but top-seeded Ocean View, led by 7-foot center Conor Clifford, probably wouldn’t.
Best first-round game: Ayala at Kaiser. Two second-place teams meet up after dropping their regular-season finales to their respective league champions. Ayala, seeded ninth, is probably better prepared for this game in terms of history and strength of schedule, but Kaiser gets a home game and should be revved up for its first playoff appearance in five years.
Darkhorse: Cajon is seeded 12th in this division but has the talent to be in the No. 6-8 range. The Cowboys went 14-0 in San Andreas League play, no easy feat on its own, but they need to prove they're more than just a second-round team. That’s where they’ve exited the last three seasons after entering the playoffs with a similar shiny record.
Background: Last season ended a streak of five straight champions from the I.E. in this division. Colony won in 2006, followed by Corona Centennial, Rancho Verde and Eisenhower in 2009 and 2010.
Best Shot: Murrieta Valley comes in seeded third and with some experience left over from the Division 2AA championship team in 2010. The Nighthawks went 23-2 this season, winning two tournaments in December. Don’t count out fifth-seeded Elsinore either. The Tigers split with Murrieta Valley this season and feature one of the division’s most dynamic scorers in senior guard E.J. Twyman. Elsinore could be looking at a quarterfinal game against South Bay power Leuzinger, who beat the Tigers by four points at a Martin Luther King Day showcase last month in Playa del Rey.
Best first-round game: Vista del Lago at Sultana. The 16th-seeded Sultans didn’t quite live up to preseason expectations, despite finishing 17-7 overall and 10-2 to win the Mojave River League. Daaron Flagg, a 6-4 senior guard who averages 17.8 points for Sultana, is one of the more exciting players to watch in the division, when he's on his game. Vista del Lago gets the most out of what it has on the roster. The two leading scorers for the Ravens, Marion Clark and Godfrey Freeman, are both undersized forwards.
Darkhorse: Colony is a dangerous team in the No. 7 slot. The Titans have a rich tradition of deep playoff runs and a bench full of athletes who thrive in the run-and-gun style. They shouldn’t have any trouble getting through the first two rounds, potentially setting up a quarterfinal meeting with second-seeded Compton, a team they’d match up well against.