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BOYS' EIGHTH REGION PREVIEW: Back where it started

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After off-season of change, Shelby still the team to beat

By John Herndon

Well, now. Looks like we are right back where we started.

After an off-season that included high-profile changes, things have gone full circle among the Eighth Region boys' basketball team and Shelby County is supposed to use an incredibly gifted roster to trample everyone else on its way to Rupp Arena.

It's just like most expected back last spring when teams put 2009 in their closets and started thinking about 2010.

The first change was not unexpected when Gary Forrest stepped down as head coach at Oldham County and Jason Holland moved from neighboring Henry County to take over. Forrest had been at Oldham for 20 years with nearly 500 wins and five regional titles, but there had been speculation about his retirement during most of last season.

But that was a small blip on the screen compared to the saga of potential superstar Daryl Hicks.

The sixth man for Shelby County's regional runner-up team last year, Hicks is called Kentucky's best player in the class of 2013. His performance at elite camps thrust him into the top 25 nationally in his class. Reportedly, every big-time college program in the country, had been in contact.

But the Hicks-transferring-from-Shelby rumors that percolated during last season came to full boil in the summer. Hicks moved in with his AAU coach, transferred to North Oldham.

Shelby was no longer considered the lock.

Just before official practice started in mid-October, however, the story took another twist when Hicks returned home and re-enrolled at Shelby County. Once again, the Rockets appear to be heavy favorites to make their third Sweet 16 trip in five years.

“They are so athletic,” says Anderson County coach Glen Drury. “They have so many players that can make plays.”

While Hicks is a nationally-ranked player in his class, the Rockets leaders are a trio of seniors. Donovan Johnson (6-foot-6) can carry a team from wing spot and guard Cache Tomlinson, a deadly shooter, is a three-year starter. But point guard Boomer Beckley makes them go. Beckley is only 5-8, but owns devastating penetrating skills.

“He and Tomlinson together give you some real matchup problems,” Drury says.

Anderson is Shelby's biggest obstacle.

The Bearcats defeated Shelby three times last year and have won five of the last six meetings between the schools.

Just don't tell the rest of the region that it is a two-team race.

“I think most people thought Shelby and Anderson had the most talent, but I don’t think everyone thought it was just a two-team race (last year),” says Grant County coach Ron Kinmon. North Oldham gave them both fits last year. Grant beat Shelby in the regular season and played Anderson County very close in the regular season. 

“I think most people will agree that Shelby and Anderson again have to be 1-2 in the region, but North Oldham, South Oldham, and Simon Kenton might have something to say about that.”

Coach Steven Simpson has a solid program at South that has been a bit under the radar statewide, but rest assured that the Dragons can play. Casey Jackson is a shooter extraordinaire. “We return a lot of experience, four starters,” Simpson says. “We have a very deep bench.”

Simon Kenton should have beaten Shelby  in the first round of the regional tournament last season. The Pioneers play relentless defense, are rugged up front and boast one of the best players you have not heard about in guard Casey Sorrell.

North Oldham should be strong, despite Hicks' return home. For much of last season, North was considered the main threat to Anderson – the Mustangs led Anderson by 10 with three minutes to play in January – but fizzled a bit at season's end. Guard Alex Foley rivals Jackson as the region's best shooter.

While Shelby is not a lock, the Rockets are a good bet to make the final year before splitting into two schools a memorable one.

“Their top seven are experienced and skilled,” says Gallatin County coach Jon Jones. “They have bench players that would start for the rest of the region.”

Herndon's Top eight teams

(Last year's record in parentheses)

1.Shelby County (16-15)

Why the Rockets can win it: The Rockets are loaded with talent and are strong at nearly every position. Guard tandem of Boomer Beckley and Cache Tomlinson is very hard to defend and gets everything going. Why the Rockets won't win: Someone slows Beckley, cutting off the floor general. Anderson's veterans or South Oldham's shooters rise to the occasion.

2.Anderson County (24-6)

Why the Bearcats can win: Three starters and top reserve return from regional champ. Smart team with chemistry clicks on all cylinders in March. Why the Bearcats won't: C.J. Penny graduated and Bearcats can't fill the void.

3.South Oldham (13-15)

Why the Dragons can win it: Incredible shooters, veteran team. Coach Steven Simpson is just due. Why the Dragons won't: Not enough to compensate on a cold shooting night.

4.Simon Kenton (9-17)

Why the Pioneers can win it: Defense, defense, defense.  They play it with a passion. Casey Sorrell is a dynamite guard. Why the Pioneers won't: Too many questions beyond Sorrell.

5.North Oldham (19-11)

Why the Mustangs can win it: Great outside-inside combo in guard Alex Foley and center Devon Rowan. Some good young talent steps up. Why they won't: Too many question marks beyond Foley and Rowan. A recent history of inconsistency in the post-season.

6.Oldham County (12-10)

Why the Colonels can win it: Some young talent is actually better than advertised. New coach Jason Holland continues what he did at Henry County. Why they wont: Still a year or two away.

7.Owen County (15-15)

Why the Rebels can win it: Huge front line and coach Devin Duvall is one of the rising names to keep up with in the region. Why they won't: No one to replace graduated guards Colin Gamble and Drew Marston.

8.Gallatin County (13-13)

Why the Wildcats can win it: Guard Zac Jones and his father, coach Jon Jones, lead a group of overachivers. Why they won't: Gallatin has some good players. An All-A Classic title is not out of the question but not enough firepower to knock off the heavyweights.

Top10 players

(How do you pick between the top two? It is comparing apples and oranges. Do you pick the best high school player or the best college prospect? I went with the former.)

1.Jacob Russell, Anderson Co.

Mega-strong, mega-skilled and mega-winner. Beats you any way he can. Best high school player in the region.

2.Donovan Johnson, Shelby Co.

Incredible athlete and 6-6 at that. The best college prospect in the region among seniors.

3.Darryl Hicks, Shelby Co.

Some say he's the best freshman in the state. Has a top 25 national ranking. Far and away the best prospect in the region.

4.Casey Jackson, South Oldham

Can shoot from anywhere in the gym.

5.Alex Foley, North Oldham

Rivals Jackson as the region's best shooter.

6.Boomer Beckley, Shelby Co.

Incredible quickness and the head of the Shelby attack. As Beckley goes, so goes Shelby.

7.Will Ruggles, Anderson Co.

Underrated hero of last year's regional champs. Not spectacular but does a lot of things well. Anderson noticeably fell off when he left the lineup last year.

8.Jordan Shelton, Owen Co.

Sold big man, will be counted upon for big production.

9.Casey Sorrell, Simon Kenton

Outstanding guard that leads a blue-collar team.

10.Zac Jones, Gallatin Co.

Coaches son and he shows it..