By Erik Alcantar
The 2018 Lake Central Sectional is one of the most wide open sectional tournaments in recent memory. The field features only two teams with winning records, one school with an even record, and four teams that finished under .500.
Of course, once Oliver P. Morton High School (9-14) and Highland High School (12-11) tip-off the tournament on Tuesday night, those records go out the window.
For a closer look at the seven teams, check out this map with details and records.
That’s not to say previous results aren’t important. In fact, the first round on Wednesday night features two rematches: Crown Point High School (11-12) versus Lake Central High School (12-12) and Munster High School (16-6) versus Lowell Senior High School (11-12).
The Munster Mustangs defeated the Lowell Red Devils 60-47 in their meeting back on Jan. 26 in a game that saw the Red Devils trail by as many as 19 points before they stormed back to cut it to six.
Lowell Head Coach Joe Delgado believes his team will benefit from that defeat.
“Our players know what to expect from Munster,” Delgado said. “Playing them earlier in the season gives our kids confidence the next time they see them.”
It’s a tough draw to say the least, as Lowell drew the only team in the sectional to have won a conference championship and the only school to win more than 12 games.
“I think the key is to keep Munster off the free-throw line, in many of their games they’re shooting 20 or 30 free-throws,” Delgado said. “You are not going to win games if you let opposing teams shoot that many.”
In their first meeting, the Mustangs went to the line 20 times, while the Red Devils had just seven free-throw attempts, three of which occurred in the last minute.
“We need to be aggressive from the start,” Delgado said.
A lot can change in a month, and Lowell have won four of their last five coming into the sectional tournament. Coach Delgado cited team chemistry as his team’s biggest improvement since the loss to Munster.
“They are playing more team basketball on both ends of the court, our bench has come in and gave us some good, productive minutes,” Delgado said. “Different guys are embracing their roles and doing what is best for the team.”
In the other first round rematch, Lake Central will be trying to avenge a Feb. 16 55-60 loss to Crown Point. It was a tightly contested game throughout and Crown Point Head Coach Clint Swan also believes that playing an opponent during the regular season will help his team in the rematch.
“It will absolutely benefit us,” Swan said. “It’s hard to beat a team twice, but we’ll be ready.”
The Bulldogs held a 23-17 rebounding edge and went to the free-throw line eight more times than the Indians. For Lake Central to turn the result around, they’ll need to limit second chance opportunities.
East Chicago Central High School (10-11) has the most unique road to the sectional championship. In a 7-team bracket, they were lucky enough to receive a bye. They also will not have to face Munster until the final should they both advance to that stage. Perhaps it’s their reward for being the only team in the sectional to defeat Munster.
“I think it [a bye] will benefit us greatly, out of all the teams in our sectional, we may have the most unique group,” said East Chicago Head Coach Marcus Jefferson. “We can definitely use that time to clean up a lot of what we do to give us the best chance to be successful in the sectional this year.”
Jefferson is in his first year as the Cardinals Head Coach, and there have been some growing pains along the way.
“The one thing I’ve been stressing is just team. Team, team, team. The concept of becoming a team. I have five seniors, four out of the five are transfers,” Jefferson said. “We go about eight deep, and then the other three guys have fairly limited to no varsity experience. So it’s taken us about 20 plus games to really understand the importance of the team.”
The Cardinals will await the winner of the Highland-Morton game. Coach Jefferson is preparing his team for both, but does have a preference in opponent.
“If we happen to play Morton, I feel comfortable knowing that we’ve played them and gotten a feel for their personnel, in comparison to Highland who we haven’t played and haven’t seen a lot of,” Jefferson said. “I think if we play Morton, it would give us an advantage.”
Jefferson, Swan and Delgado all agree, beating a team twice is difficult, but there is more benefit to having played an opponent once before, regardless of the result.
The semi-final round is guaranteed to feature at least one rematch, as the quartet of Lake Central, Munster, Lowell and Crown Point played each other during the regular season. Should East Chicago or Morton reach the final, it will guarantee the sectional final is also a rematch.
Munster’s overall record and dominance against the rest of the sectional makes them clear favorites. But there is precedent for a team with a less than stellar record making a run in the tournament.
In 2004, East Chicago was able to capture a sectional championship having entered the tournament with a record of 11-9. That East Chicago team also got a bye into the semi-final round.
A year prior, Merrillville High School, a team in the nearby sectional 2, finished their regular season at 10-10. They went on to defeat Valparaiso High School (17-3), Chesterton High School (15-5) and Crown Point (10-10) to capture the sectional title. Not only that, they ended up winning two more games and Regional Championship before falling in the Semi-State round.
On any given night, anyone can beat anyone.