Lots of basketball to be played, but Cats show they can strive for greatness

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By John Herndon

It's a long time until the Eighth Region tournament is set to begin March 5.

That's 90 days from the day this column is published.

That's time enough for 17, hopefully 18 more regularly scheduled boys basketball games plus a date in the prestigious King of the Bluegrass tournament - and as many as four more games games - over the Christmas holiday. Then there are the district tournaments, which start the last Monday in February.

With enough time to pay off at least some of your Christmas shopping debts, some with no interest, it would be a stretch to say that Anderson County's 61-54 win over Simon Kenton on Friday night will be more than a distant memory when the eight district survivors gather at Henry County to decide the Eighth Region's state tournament representative.

But there was a reason that the Anderson gym housed a good, but not great, crowd that included a who's-who of coaches of the region's haves - Shelby County's Mike Clark, Oldham County's Gary Forrest and others. They utilized early open dates to check out the Bearcats, one of the regional favorites, tangle with Simon Kenton, the program that has runner-up trophies from the last two regional tourneys.

"It's fun to have big games like this early in the season," Anderson coach Glen Drury said.

Think Kentucky vs. North Carolina. OK, let's try Texas at UCLA instead, but you know what I am talking about.

It's fun to see two teams that have a chance to do something special square off during the first week of the season.

While it's not a foregone conclusion that either team will even be a part of the regional field, Friday showed us some things about both the Bearcats and Pioneers to keep in mind throughout the hoops season.

Anderson showed it has the ability to be very good, perhaps even great. For 10 minutes and 17 seconds, the Bearcats put on as good a show of high school basketball as you will see in late November. Less than a minute in, Seth Goodlett threaded a perfect pass to Ryan Wells going back door to the basket for an open layup.

The Bearcats rode C.J. Penny, who would end up with 26 points and a career-high 19 rebounds, to a 24-8 lead with 5:43 to go in the first half. By that time, Penny already had 10 points but had brought the house down with a spectacular no-look pass to Jacob Russell to finish a first quarter fast break.

Simply put, there were times Friday night when Penny looked as if he wanted to make sure the only question about individual talent centers around who is the region's second best.

"He's a good player and good players make good plays," Simon Kenton coach Trent Steiner said.

To get to the Sweet 16, all teams have to have others that are able to make that key play. Anderson showed that Friday as Wells, Will Ruggles and Jacob Russell all came up with big plays in the final minutes Friday.

Of course, there were downsides to Anderson's game Friday night.

"When we got the big lead, we slacked off on defense," Wells admitted.

Bad mistake.

Even though Simon Kenton lost four starters off last year's regional favorite and the fifth, senior Zach Layne, had not recovered well enough from a pre-season injury to play Friday, the Pioneers showed that the old clich about tradition never graduating is true.

Just when Anderson seemed ready to blow Simon Kenton back to the Cincinnati suburbs, the Pioneers came out flailing like a pro wrestler who had just had his head beaten against the turnbuckle several times. The difference was that Simon Kenton's revival was real.

Guard Jeff Slavey's four 3-point bombs were genuine. So was the Pioneers' inside muscle. Even though they are rebuilding, the Pioneers played seven seniors and two juniors, including some big, physical wide bodies.

And while Anderson never trailed, Simon Kenton demonstrated that same refuse-to-lose characteristic of a champion. That's what two straight trips to the regional championship game will do for you, even if you are watching from the bench.

"They play defense and when they get Layne back they will be better," Drury said.

Anderson should get better as well. Several players played football until mid-November and have only been practicing about two weeks. They haven't totally made the transition yet.

The Bearcats will surely have to develop more of a bench. A year ago, Drury was able to use up to 10 players and not see much of a drop off. Nathan Grooms is the only proven player coming off the bench at this point, but Nick Humphries has been a bright spot in the first two games of the year and Walt Ruggles has demonstrated a good knowledge of the game and hit a clutch basket for his only 2 points of Friday's contest.

There are other kids on the bench that have shown some ability in practice and junior varsity games. "I am going to have to play some of those kids," Drury said. "We have to develop depth even if we get beat somewhere along the way. We have to develop that depth to win the regional tournament."

And for the Bearcats to make it to Rupp Arena as regional champion, free throw shooting will have to improve. Anderson hit just 9-of-18 Friday and were 1-of-5 from the stripe in the final 88 seconds. Twice in that span, Anderson missed the front end of the bonus.

Drury cringed at the stat, the same one that once prompted legendary Clay County coach Bobby Keith to say, "A team that can't hit free throws in March is like a dog that chases cars. Neither one is going to last very long."

"We have to have a lot of improvement for us to be great," said Drury.

The Bearcats have 90 days in which to do it.

That's 10 more than it took Jules Verne to take his readers around the world.

Whether Anderson County will journey to that realm of greatness in mid-March will depend upon whether the Bearcats are the same team in March that they were Nov. 30.