From the moment two orange table tennis balls rolled out of a drum in the KHSAA offices, emblazoned with the numbers '9' and '11,' the vast majority of stakeholders in Kentucky boys' basketball expected a state championship rematch between Covington Catholic and Scott County in the Sweet 16.
In addition to the national news cycle that disrupted the Colonels' sports and scholastic life for at least a week in January, injuries and hungry opponents conspired to sabotage both teams' return trek to Rupp Arena.
But once the calendar flipped to March and every game's meaning was magnified, normalcy reigned, and here we are.
Top-five blue bloods SC (32-3) and Cov Cath (27-7) will battle for the third time in six years. This time, instead of the Sunday afternoon spotlight of 2014 and 2018, it's the marquee game in that infamous luck-of-the-draw opening round.
Tip-off is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday. The set-up for SC is similar to last season, when two of the consensus top three teams collided on day one. The Cards needed a corner bomb from Cooper Robb (now starting for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte) to survive Trinity.
Perfect scenario or not, it's the format that makes the commonwealth's tournament a one-of-a-kind endeavor across the fruited plain. A veteran coach such as SC's Billy Hicks simply shrugs, secure in the knowledge that if his team wants to win the program's third state title, it likely would have to tackle Covington Catholic eventually.
“We've got a chance. That's all you want is a chance,” Hicks said. “We've been No. 1 all year, so we've obviously got a pretty good chance to do it. But you know, it's the state tournament. There will be challenges. It will be a tough one against Covington Catholic.”
There are some striking similarities in the teams' journeys to this point.
Each lost a key player for an extended stretch along the way. In Scott County's case, it was perhaps the state's most complete player, 6-foot-7 senior and Mr. Basketball finalist Michael Moreno, for 18 games. Covington Catholic's 6-5 junior Michael Mayer, who has committed to play football at Notre Dame, missed 25 before his recent return.
Both powers also had to shoo away a talented foe that rose up within their district and buzzed in their ear all season long, culminating with a postseason loss. Scott County fell to Henry Clay in the 42nd District final, while Cov Cath absorbed its second defeat against Beechwood in the 35th District title game.
Revenge was served by double digits in the respective region championships.
“We're getting better. We had a tough schedule the last few weeks,” Hicks said. “The district championship was like a road game. That wasn't a neutral court. It was a tough atmosphere, tough situation. But what it did, it woke us up a little bit to how hard we have to play on defense.”
SC (Dunbar) and Cov Cath (Highlands) each experienced only one other in-state loss, both coming on the road. The Cards tested themselves with a runner-up finish in the ballyhooed Beach Ball Classic, while iron sharpened iron as the Colonels lost to Cincinnati powers Taft, Moeller and St. Xavier, as well as Loyola Academy of Illinois.
Where's the major difference? Probably experience. Scott County's seven seniors — Moreno, Glenn Covington, Bryce Long, Lorenzo Williams, Cam Fluker, Kobi Harris and Diablo Stewart — all have made substantial varsity contributions for four years. Stewart transferred in as a junior last season.
Moreno, Long, Williams and often Covington have been in the starting lineup since they were freshmen, losing in the playoffs to the eventual state champion (Dunbar, Bowling Green, Covington Catholic) each time.
“We're seniors,” Moreno said. “We don't want to go out with a loss.”
Cov Cath won 73-55 in last year's final, but four of the five leading scorers from that team graduated, taking 57 points per game with them.
This year's big guns are the outside-inside combination of 5-11 junior guard Grant Disken (13.8 ppg) and 6-8 senior Nick Thelen (13.6). Disken has drained a team-leading 67 3-pointers.
The Colonels are tall across the board, with Mayer (averaging 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds in nine games), 6-5 senior forward Tyler Fleek (7.6 ppg) and junior center Neil Green (8.5 ppg) all contributing to the success.
They're one of the most efficient shooting teams in the state, hitting at a remarkable 55.7 percent from the floor, but the Colonels likely have seen few teams with the Cards' on-the-ball defensive presence or shot-altering ability.
Scott County held Frankfort and Henry Clay, both top-10 foes, to 50 and 38 points in the final two games of the regional.
“It's really a special group of kids,” Hicks said. “All our kids are really tough, good kids. They took a big lick in the district championship.”
Moreno was named tournament MVP after accumulating 13 points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots against Henry Clay in only the fourth start since his return from a broken right foot.
“He's a fighter for sure,” Long said. “His foot's probably not ready. He knows it, and everybody knows it, but there ain't no keeping him out.”
“Every day Michael gets a little better, and the better he gets, the better we get,” Hicks added.
SC and Cov Cath are two of six teams back from last year's tournament. John Hardin, Trinity, Campbell County and Warren Central share that distinction.
The Cards are the only ones here for the third consecutive year. That's tough enough to do anywhere, since many high school boys don't crack the starting lineup until they are juniors.
It’s even harder to pull off the triple crown in the 11th Region, where Lexington schools have produced college and pro players by the bushel. The last time anyone did it — the old Dunbar High School, from 1963 to 1965 — Hicks was in grammar school.
“Do some history and see the last time somebody won three straight championships in the 11th Region,” Hicks said. “They haven't done it since the schools integrated. It's hard to win the 11th Region that many times in a row, and these guys did.”
Of course, all that guarantees is a first-round donnybrook that one of Kentucky's most storied programs won't survive.
“Honestly I thought whoever wins our region game would have a good chance to make it to the state championship,” Long said. “I hope that's true.”
The tournament tipped off Wednesday with four games. Walton-Verona won the opener decisively, 76-54, over Knox Central. SC soundly defeated Walton-Verona during the regular season at Lafayette’s Jock Sutherland Classic.
Other first-round matchups on that side of the draw were Trinity vs. Johnson Central, John Hardin vs. Campbell County and Owensboro vs. Ashland Blazer.
John Hardin enters the tournament at 35-0, the first undefeated team in the field since 1989. Brewers of Marshall County (1948) is the only undefeated boys’ state champion in KHSAA history.
The Scott County-Covington Catholic winner will take on either Louisville Butler or Perry County Central at 6:30 p.m. Friday. In the other two first-round pairings on SC’s side of the bracket, Lincoln County faces Madisonville-North Hopkins, and Warren Central takes on Mayfield.
Sweet 16 week began with the Mr. and Miss Basketball banquet Tuesday night. Dontaie Allen of Pendleton County and Savannah Wheeler of Boyd County took home those honors.
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at email@example.com.