Boys 36th District basketball preview: Can anyone contend with Newport?

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The 36th District has produced the 9th Region champion in two of the last three seasons and if preseason polls are any indicator, it very well could be three of four.

Newport returns a loaded team while the rest of the district will be taking their best shot at the Wildcats to dethrone them.

Newport (28-7 in 2022-23)

Newport guard Jabari Covington will be one of three in the Wildcats backcourt that’s among the best in the state. Brandon Wheeler | LINK nky contributor

Newport took not only the 36th District, but the 9th Region by storm last season as their underclassmen grew up before our own eyes.

Now the question begs what they can do for an encore?

The Wildcats may have lost Marquez Miller, the lone senior on last year’s region championship team, but some reinforcements have come in by way of Ohio. DeShaun Jackson and Griffin Starks have transferred into the program, Jackson providing yet another threat to an already loaded backcourt with Taylen Kinney and Jabari Covington, while Starks shows tons of potential as a 6-foot-8 freshman.

On top of the four mentioned, James Turner, DaShawn Anderson and Noah Silverton return with plenty of added experience.

Whatever the lineup the Wildcats put out, it is sure to be electric with talent all over the floor. They know every time they step out and lace them up, a fierce challenge awaits.

“Every game is our homerun game,” Wildcats coach Rod Snapp said. “We’re going to play a bunch of teams that are going to get after us and play with nothing to lose.”

Areas to improve on will be perimeter shooting, hitting on just 32% of 3-point attempts last season and who replaces Miller’s rebounding ability, the second leading rebounder on the team last season. James Turner figures to be the guy there and a nightly double-double threat. While they have four or five guys capable of getting them 20-plus points on any given night, Snapp wants his team to be unpredictable.

“We reference the 2009 Holmes team a lot. They had a ton of talent and sprinkled points around and they won. We talk about being unpredictable a lot, we need to be unpredictable,” Snapp said. “Can James hit a 3-ball? Can we attack with our left hand? Can we attack the basket and get to the foul line and knock down free throws?”

While the Wildcats primarily went six-deep in the rotation last year, Snapp thinks they can go eight or nine deep with Amonte Lowe and Keegan Farrell coming off solid summers. The added depth should help bring a quicker tempo this season, the Wildcats at times last season grinding games out in the halfcourt. Having Kinney, Covington and Jackson as three interchangeable point guards will help too.

“We feel we have one of the strongest backcourts in the state,” Snapp said. “Adding DeShaun has been a gamechanger. All three can bring the ball up against anybody. We want to get out and run more. Just don’t shoot outstanding. We’ll see a lot of zone, just have to find ways to score on it.”

As the defending region champs and what’s coming back, Newport scheduled like it. They’re playing Lloyd Memorial, Cooper and Covington Catholic, considered the top four teams in the region and will also be the favorite to win the 9th Region All “A” tournament in early January with a shot at going to the All “A” state tournament in Corbin.

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They’re also playing at the King of the Bluegrass in Louisville, one of the premiere Christmas tournaments in the state featuring some of the top teams in the state. They open up with Washington County in that with a potential for a top 10 matchup against Great Crossing in the second round. Other games against Richmond Heights (Ohio), Huntington Prep (WV) and the Ray Furney Holiday Classic in Lawrenceburg, IN will have them tested before January even hits.

“We want to be tested early. We’re going to lose some games, but we’re playing some really good teams,” Snapp said.

The scary thing about Newport? They’ll return seven of their top nine next year.

Highlands (23-10 in 2022-23)

Highlands senior guard Nathan Vinson will be a vital part to the Bluebirds success this season. Brandon Wheeler | LINK nky contributor

For the first time since 2019, Highlands wasn’t hoisting a 36th District championship trophy at the end of February.

While this may not be a typical Bluebirds team that has put up on average 714 three-pointers over the last four seasons, coach Kevin Listerman expects his team to attack the basket more.

“We actually have more guys who can attack the basket this year. While we don’t have the one great shooter, we have several guys we feel can be 35-40% from three,” Listerman said. “While we’ll definitely spread the floor and play fast, I think this group will be very gritty. I think we can be significantly better on the defensive end of the floor.”

Attacking the basket starts with Nathan Vinson. He’s the returning leading scorer and pairs with Brayden Moeves to form a 1-2 scoring punch. Moeves missed the final four games of the season with an injury and they’ll be joined by Nathan Kirst, Hank Shick and Vinny Listerman in the starting lineup. Moeves, Kirst and Schick provide the size while Listerman brings that grittiness to the defensive end.

Listerman is looking for Vinson to be more of a facilitator this season and be a more consistent rebounder and 3-point shooter. Moeves will also be looked upon to rebound more while showing he can provide more scoring off the dribble and scoring in the paint.

The key departures from last season’s team include the program’s all-time 3-point leader in William Herald and Seth Ryan while Listerman is unsure if Brody Benke and Carson Class will join the team after the Bluebirds run in football.

That leaves a lot of opportunity for minutes off the bench.

The Bluebirds will challenge themselves in December with St. Xavier, Oldham County, Walton-Verona and Ashland on the docket. With Cooper, Moeller (OH) and Covington Catholic on the schedule in January. Lloyd Memorial, Montgomery County and Simon Kenton await in February.

Their showdown with Newport is on Jan. 5.

Newport Central Catholic (11-19 in 2022-23)

Newport Central Catholic’s Ian Mann is the returning leading scorer for the Thoroughbreds. Photo provided

Despite losing five to graduation and another via transfer to another school, NewCath will look to be an exciting team that pushes tempo and lets it fly from three again.

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Gone is leading scorer Coby Kramer to graduation and Jase Iles, who transferred to Bellevue, the two combining to score 28.5 points per game last season. But Ian Mann, Caleb Eaglin, JJ Luhn and Louie Collopy return to a lineup that head coach Jake Luhn expects to play even faster than last season’s team that averaged nearly 70 points per game.

“We will have four guards on the court, regardless of the lineup that can all handle it and stretch the defense with their ability to shoot,” Luhn said. “We are working hard to balance our shooting with getting to the foul line much more frequently. We have worked on our ability to finish at the rim and through contact. This will be a major factor in our overall offensive efficiency/productivity.”

The style of play will require others to step up in those roles while Luhn feels Mann is ready to break out even more than his 14.2 points per game from last season.

“Ian Mann may be the most underrated player in the Region,” Luhn said. “Ian is going to be a problem, especially in transition. He has been working incredibly hard this off-season and is ready to make a serious jump. I am very excited to watch it happen.” 

Eaglin, who missed half the season last year due to an injury, will provide the size needed to help with rebounding along with the ability to knock down the outside shot if needed.

“I anticipate Caleb Eaglin to pick up right where he left off prior to his injury last season,” Luhn said. “Caleb has developed his body, grew a couple inches and preparing with a chip on his shoulder. He’ll be impactful on the glass, inside-out scoring ability and pressure defensively with his length and motor.”

The ‘Breds certainly aren’t shying away from the competition. They have Covington Catholic on the schedule twice, Lloyd Memorial, and Cooper to play along with the challenges that Newport and Highlands will present in district play. They’ll also play in the Queen City Classic and face off against St. Charles Prep and Hoban out of Ohio. They’ll also face Moeller in February.

Dayton (10-20 in 2022-23)

Dayton’s Eric Solano averaged 12.2 points per game with the Greendevils last season. Photo provided from the Scott Winter Classic

The Greendevils enter the season with first-year coach Darian Witherspoon, who coached the JV team last season and an assistant under Mike Walls.

Witherspoon has been surrounded by basketball his whole life and has plenty of ties to the 9th Region. He wants to build the foundation of the team on five principles: faith, family, academics, structure and mental health.

He inherits a team that graduated just three seniors last season, two of them in the nine-man rotation the Greendevils rolled out last season in Ty Barnes and Landyn Hopper.

They do return leading scorers Mason Johnson and Eric Solano, the two combining to average 25.6 points per game last season.

“Mason just finished up a good senior campaign in football and we are getting him caught up with conditioning and polishing up his game before the regular season comes. He shoots the ball at a high percentage and has a chance to hit 1,000 career points this season,” Witherspoon said. “Eric has been in the gym nonstop since the end of last season. He has taken a tremendous leap ball handling and scoring, but most importantly leadership.”

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Solano pulled down nearly nine rebounds a game last season as an undersized guard, which will be needed with Barnes departure.

“We will be undersized. My senior and junior class is filled with competitors. We will be a fast-paced team and physical,” Witherspoon said.

Chad Nickell, Landon Graham, Marquel Kennedy and Kevin Buemi figure to fill out the rest of the starting lineup and rotation.

“They bring physicality and IQ to the table,” Witherspoon said. “They are guys that I expect to lead us in the locker room and hold teammates accountable.” and bring physicality and experience to the team. Kevin Buemi

Elijah Sullivan-Gary is a player Witherspoon expects to breakout and have a role on the team.

Dayton will see where they stand in the 36th right away with Newport and Newport Central Catholic to open the season. They get Bellevue on Dec. 18 and also open with the Tigers in the first round of the 9th Region All “A” tournament. They won’t face Highlands until Jan. 30.

“I think we will be battled tested very early in the season. Us coaches want to see growth and development and a willingness to learn and get better. Adversity will come, but it is how they handle the adversity is what I am looking for,” Witherspoon said.

Bellevue (13-16 in 2022-23)

Bellevue’s Zach Mertens put up 14.6 points per game for the Tigers last season. Photo provided

Bellevue returns their top seven scorers from a season ago as Jim Hicks enters his 13th season with the team.

With what’s returning, the Tigers are optimistic they can be competitive in the district. They also have some depth to make things have an even brighter outlook.

“We have some young guys that are looking to crack the rotation, so that makes for competitive practices, which is an area we have struggled in the past,” Hicks said.

Noah Frommeyer and Zach Mertens enter the season as the returning leading scorers and have the chance to clear the 1,000-point markers for their careers. The two are expected to shoulder the scoring load once again, what they get elsewhere will help determine their success.

“If we can find 1-2 additional complementary scorers, it bodes well for our success,” Hicks said. “We have a lot of experience returning so I would expect it to be someone different each night. We are hoping to be more aggressive than we have in the past.  For us to have success, it will have to start on the defensive end.”

Curtis Rust, Jackson Fornash, Tristan Woodyard, Aiden Dickerson and Jordan Pendleton should fill out the rotation from there.

The Tigers face district foes Dayton (Dec. 18), Newport Central Catholic (Jan. 17), Newport (Jan. 31) and Highlands (Feb. 2). Their last trip to the 9th Region tournament came in 2008.

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