The new year is here and it looks like Brookfield Central will be right in the Greater Metro Conference race if the Lancers remain healthy.
Preseason favorite Sussex Hamilton (10-0) is tied for first with the Lancers, each with 4-0 records, with the second half starting on Friday.
Wauwatosa East (3-1) and Marquette (3-1) are the other winning teams, but I don't think they are a threat to the Lancers and Chargers. But let's take a closer look.
The Red Raiders, who travel to Central on Friday, have lost three of their last five overall. Their conference wins have come over the last-place teams -Brookfield East (3-6 overall, 0-4 in GMC), and Menomonee Falls (2-8, 0-4) and West Allis Hale (6-4, 1-3).
That's a combined conference record of 1-11 and an overall mark of 11-18 for those opponents. Their loss came at Sussex Hamilton, 60-46, a game they led 29-24, at intermission. But a 36-17 second half did them in.
The Red Raiders need to be more aggressive on the boards and on defense and then play an entire four quarters, not two or three, to be successful.
Senior Nate Moore, a 6-foot-2-inch guard, leads the offense with 15.3 points per game, while senior forward Ben Mihelich averages 10.6 ppg. Since his return, senior Anthony Carroll is averaging 10.4, right ahead of 3-point shooter senior Ben Carpenter (9.1).
Derrick Hurt (5.8), Kyle Vnuk (5.3) and Christian Tolbert (3.1) are the key players on the boards for Tosa East.
The Hilltoppers are 7-2 overall and are on a roll, winning five straight games. Their GMC wins came over Hale, 65-50, Falls, 67-43, and defending champion West Allis Central (5-4, 1-3), 56-42. That's a combined 2-10 GMC mark and 13-16 overall. Their loss came to Brookfield Central, 58-41.
See a pattern there?
The main reason the Chargers are favored are the talents of 6-4 junior Brady Ellingson, who leads the team with a 23.4 points per game average. Tony Gumina, a 6-3 junior, is the only other player in double figures (10.1), but Austin Kendziorski, a 6-2 senior (7.1), Mark Gryszkiewicz, a 6-1 senior (6.3) and Jake Kneuppel, a 6-3 senior (6.1), bring some height and balance.
But here are some reasons why I like the Lancers.
Coming into the season, Central had one of the top players in the GMC in junior Riley LaChance, a 6-2 guard. But the rest of the team was fairly inexperienced. But perhaps Central's most impressive game was an opening 66-64 loss to No. 1 Germantown, losing on a last-second shot. Since then they have ripped off eight straight wins, including an impressive 70-66 win over Arrowhead (10-2), which was 9-0 at the time.
I feel the keys to this championship race are two Lancers players other than LaChance, of course. Elijah Goodman, a 6-4, 245-pound junior and Peter Mattiacci, a 6-3 senior guard.
Goodman, who lost some 20 pounds over the year, knows his way around the basket, as he possesses a soft touch and a variety of shots that he has worked on over the past year. But that's not the good news. The big lefthander not only averages 15 points per game, but he is pulling down rebounds at a ridiculous pace of 21 a game.
While Goodman might be "Mr. Inside," Mattiacci gives Central a big-time outside shooter. LaChance (20.1 ppg) leads the team with 13 3-pointers, but Mattiacci (6.4) is right behind him with 11. If teams try to take away LaChance or collapse on Goodman, Mattiacci has exceptional range to put an end to that strategy.
But it doesn't end there.
Junior Brad Newman (7.2) has shown he is beginning to handle pressure at point guard which frees LaChance up to move to the two guard.
In the Luke Homan Memorial Holiday Tournament last week, Hartford used a box and one on LaChance.
"He's very unselfish," Adams said. "We have an offense for it. It forces them to use two people to guard him and that leaves someone open. Between Mattiacci and Newman they scored 19 of the 22 first-quarter points."
Madison West learned from that and tried something different in the title game the next night - that didn't work either.
"I knew that wasn't going to be the case," Adams said. "I knew they were going to come after him. That's even more his kind of game. He just relishes that kind of role.
"I said to the guys (coaches Ralph Mierow, Chris Foley) at dinner, I think Riley's going to have a great game. It's a pressure-type game and he was going to step up at that point. He can handle pretty hard 'on-ball' defense."
After scoring 12 points against Hartford, LaChance finished with 25 against Madison West and earned tournament MVP honors.
One of the most athletic guys on the team is 6-6 junior Caleb Mortag (5.8), who has moves like his graduated brother Seth around the basket and he plays the top of Central's 1-3-1 zone almost as well as his brother.
Coach Mark Adams can also call on junior Gunnar Malensek, another point guard, and junior forward Luke Rasmussen, 6-8, among others.
When I asked Adams if he was happy with the way team has come together, he fired back a quick answer.
"Yes, I am. We have to have one of the toughest schedules around, we really do. I think each game has presented a different challenge, because people are doing different things to us because we have some offensive talent."
But the Lancers, especially with all that length in their lineup, also present a challenge for opposing offensives who must figure out a way to expose their 1-3-1 zone defense.
"Because of the way we play our defense, people spend their time in trying to find different ways to attack it," Adams said. "We never usually get attacked the same way from game to game. So we always talk about making adjustments.
"The kids - for the lack of experience that we have - make game adjustments like a real veteran group. That part is very encouraging from a coaching standpoint. The buyin from this group is real outstanding.
"They know what it takes to win a conference championship and that's obviously been one of their goals too."
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