This weekend, the fourth edition of the Big Ten/Cardinal Conference Challenge will tip off. I have made no secret that this is one of my favorite events of each season. Not only do I get to watch a full day of basketball with good matchups between the AA teams of North Central WV and the ones in the Kanawha Valley and Southern WV, but I also have the opportunity to watch many of the Big Ten teams that I don’t get to see very often, all in one place.
The event this year will have a distinctly different look and feel to it. After three years of holding it in Charleston (one at the Civic Center and two at WVSU), the event is moving to Big Ten territory to Robert C. Byrd High School. The event has also expanded to 10 games (and a second day), as both conferences added AA schools after the most recent reclassification. Tolsia is out of the Cardinal after moving back down to “A,” and Winfield, Logan, and Nitro moved in after dropping to AA. Lewis County, which was already in the Big Ten, moved down to AA and will participate in the event this year. Instead of a one-day, nine game, 14ish hour shootout, the ten games are spread among two days. The game between the 10th, 9th, and 8th seeded teams (as determined before the season by the coaches) will be played on Friday night, with the other seven taking place on Saturday.
Beyond just the new schools, many of the familiar teams in the event have quite a new look this year, some due to graduation, others to transfers or impact freshmen. Therefore, this year’s challenge will both have some guaranteed good teams and matchups as well as a few unknowns.
Probably the least amount of change can be found in the matchup of the top seeds between Fairmont Senior and Chapmanville. The Polar Bears were the top seed for the Big Ten a year ago and were the eventual state champions (although I believe Bridgeport won the Big Ten Championship in the regular season). Senior lost standout Darhius Nunn to graduation but return several dynamic players, including Zyon Dobbs and Justin Lee. Chapmanville also returns a ton from its state tournament team, including the outstanding guard trio of Drew Williamson, Kyle Browning, and Dylan Smith. They also have a potential impact freshman in 6’8” Obinna Killen, who adds to the Tigers’ returning depth inside. This has the chance to be a great matchup between two very good AA squads.
The game between the 2-seeds has a new look as well. This is the first time that Poca has not represented the Cardinal as the top seed. The Dots definitely look a little different without Elijah Cuffee, but Luke Frampton still makes this team very dangerous. Poca has some good players around him, and Bronson Skeens could emerge as a very good second option for the Dots. North Marion had been one of the lower seeds the last two seasons but looks to be one of the better teams in the Big Ten this season after adding 6’9” impact player Jude Akabueze. I really have almost no feel for how this game will go, so I am very much looking forward to it.
Harrison County state tournament regulars Bridgeport and Robert C. Byrd were hit particularly hard with graduation last year. The Indians graduated all five of their starters from last year, and RCB has four to replace. The squads that have finished in the top-3 of the Big Ten and advanced to the state tournament each of the last four years are in a bit of a transition season, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t still be good.. RCB split a pair of games at Fairmont Senior’s tipoff classic before falling at Philip Barbour earlier this week, and Bridgeport has yet to start its season.
Bridgeport will take on a Mingo Central squad with an entirely new look. Jeremy Dillon transferred over to Central from Tug Valley this year, and he will make a huge immediate impact. Also, the Miners have a freshman guard in Drew Hatfield that already has a year of varsity experience after starting for Sheldon Clark (KY) last year as an 8th grader. (Middle schoolers are allowed to play varsity in KY.)
Logan, which will take on RCB, is back in the Cardinal Conference and is off to a pretty good start to the season. Freshman David Early is averaging 23 ppg through three games to pace the Wildcats, who blew out two conference opponents before dropping a close one at Wyoming East on Thursday.
The matchup between Philip Barbour and Winfield doesn’t feel like a matchup of 6-seeds to me, as both of these teams are good. The Colts are 4-0 and averaging 84 ppg, led by a pair of guards that are each averaging more than 20 in Spencer Hudkins (25 ppg) and Austin Upton (23). Winfield has a lot back from a squad that competed in the AAA MSAC last year and gave top-seeded Chapmanville a strong test earlier this week before falling 66-55. These teams have a chance to be very competitive in their regions, and I think this could be a very good game.
All Games at Robert C. Byrd High School
Friday, December 16, 2016
Big 10 Cardinal Seed
5:00 Grafton Wayne 10
6:30 Liberty Herbert Hoover 9
8:00 Lincoln Scott 8
Saturday, December 17, 2016
11:00 Lewis County Nitro 7
12:30 Philip Barbour Winfield 6
2:00 Robert C. Byrd Logan 5
3:30 Bridgeport Mingo Central 4
5:00 East Fairmont Sissonville 3
6:30 North Marion Poca 2
8:00 Fairmont Senior Chapmanville 1