From top to bottom, PIL is the class of 5A hoops
Prep Focus • No. 2 Jefferson leads league, which has all five teams in poll
Crystal balls can be thrown out in PIL 5A boys basketball, where predictable games have become extinct.
How strong and even is the league this year? All five teams received votes in the Class 5A Associated Press poll.
There is no dominant squad -although No. 2-ranked Jefferson looks like it can distance itself from the other four schools.
Clearly, there is no cellar-dweller the other teams can beat up on.
'There are no nights off,' Roosevelt coach Robert Key says.
'Top to bottom, it's the toughest league in the state,' Marshall coach Don Elwell says. 'I think it's tougher than 6A.'
Head to head, PIL 5A teams are 4-1 against PIL 6A teams so far.
Jefferson is 3-0 after Monday's nail-biting 61-57 win over Roosevelt (1-3) at the Rose Garden in the Terrell Brandon-sponsored Martin Luther King Jr. Classic.
The Democrats - who went 14-2 in league last season - are led by 6-6 sophomore wing Terrance Ross (15 points per game) and 6-7 sophomore wing Terrance Jones (15.3). The Demos have a tough, in-your-face defense, and they knocked off PIL 6A favorite Grant 68-54 last Friday.
However, not even Jeff is able to just show up to get a win. Cleveland (2-2) gave the Demos all they could handle last week before falling 71-63 in overtime at Jeff.
Roosevelt, which matched Jeff's 14-2 league mark last year en route to a second-place finish at state, started this season slowly, dropping to 0-2. But the Roughriders avenged a 77-76 loss to Marshall with a 71-49 win last Friday at Roosevelt.
The Riders rely primarily on 6-0 junior guard Larry Richards (17.0 scoring average), 6-0 senior guard Cameron Jackson (15.3 points per game) and 5-11 senior guard Titus Kolokolo (17.0).
'We try to slow it down and have patience and use the whole half-court,' Jackson says.
Roosevelt is tied for ninth in the 5A poll.
Cleveland, ranked No. 8 in the state, is much stronger than last season, when the Warriors tied for last place at 3-9. Not only did the Warriors go toe-to-toe with Jeff, but they've knocked off both Madison and Marshall.
Cleveland's big turnaround has been due in part to the strong play of 6-0 senior guard Davari Harrison (16 points per game) and 6-3 junior guard Johnel Gray (15.5).
Eighth-ranked Madison (3-2) has been proof that the PIL 5A is one of those 'any given night' leagues. After losing to Cleveland 57-53 in the league opener, the Senators spanked the Warriors 72-44 last Thursday. And on Wednesday, Madison beat Marshall 77-60.
The Senators are led by the 'G Boys' - 6-5 senior post Sean Gaines (18.4 points per contest) and 6-1 senior guard Anthony Golden (16.8).
Marshall -described by Madison coach Chuck Matthews as 'a great team' - also has shown great improvement from last year's 3-9 squad. The Minutemen (1-3) have a three-headed scoring machine with 6-4 senior post Brenden Sheumaker (15.3 points per game), 6-2 sophomore guard Mitch Beckwith (19.8), and 6-1 sophomore forward Domo Giles (14.0). Marshall is one of six teams that received votes in the AP poll, after those clubs that are in the top 10.
How close is the PIL 5A?
Six of the 10 games have been decided by eight points or less - with four decided by four points or less. Nearly every game has a playoff atmosphere. And only three of the five teams will make the postseason.
'It's about game preparation and who's ready to come out and play,' Key says.
Many of the players seem to love it.
'I really like that everybody's so close. It's a test of the heart,' Golden says.
The teams will have to deal with the emotional and mental draining that comes when games go down to the wire - and especially after those close losses. The top players also will have to battle with the physical draining that comes with playing all 32 minutes, or close to it, or even more, in the case of OT.
'I do get winded out there, but I've just got to push through it,' Golden says. 'If I'm out there, I'm out there.'
Tonight, Jefferson plays at Cleveland, while Roosevelt is at Madison. On Tuesday, Cleveland visits Roosevelt, and Marshall goes to Jeff.
Whoever passes the test the rest of the regular season and qualifies for the playoffs will be well-prepared for postseason play.
'The best three teams out of this league are going to be very state-tournament ready,' Key says.
The question is: Who will survive?