Hilltoppers favored in District 1-AAA tournament

Douglas Fritz • Feb 11, 2013 at 10:38 AM

Several area basketball teams have battled for three months to get themselves in position for what starts in earnest tomorrow.

District tournament action gets under way today with the 1-AAA event at Daniel Boone. The 1-AA at Elizabethton and the 1-A at Science Hill’s new gym are both scheduled to start Friday — although pairings won’t officially be announced until today’s coaches meetings.

First-round games are elimination contests, but several area teams have earned byes securing spots in the region — which begins Feb. 22 for the girls and Feb. 23 for the boys.

Here’s a tourney-by-tourney look at how things shape for the first step in what teams hope will eventually lead to a trip to the state tournament:

1-AAA — With its impressive 55-game Big Eight Conference winning streak, it’s hard to imagine any team keeping the Hilltoppers from earning the district championship.

However, if one of the other seven coaches wanted to deliver a Herm Edwards-motivational speech, he could point out Tennessee High (10 points), Daniel Boone (10 points) and Dobyns-Bennett (8 points in overtime) each gave the Hilltoppers a run for their money in the last three weeks.

If the Hilltoppers got Tennessee High in the semifinals, followed by Dobyns-Bennett or Daniel Boone in the finals, things could at least be entertaining.

However, the Hilltoppers have won 14 straight games since an Arby’s Classic loss to Memphis Melrose — a very talented team that has lost six games since defeating Science Hill.

Also, the Hilltoppers have a coach who is setting George Pitts-like standards on The Hill. Ken Cutlip’s teams have won 30 games or more six times in his nine seasons as head coach. The Hilltoppers are 100-9 in their last three seasons with seven of those losses coming against teams in the Arby’s Classic (3), Oak Hill Academy (1), Bahamas (1), sectional (1) and state tournament (1). The others were upsets against Greeneville and Morristown East.

Science Hill has won 12 straight games in the district and regional tournaments since Daniel Boone clipped them in both events in 2010.

Favorite: Science Hill.

Predicted winner: Science Hill.

Darkhorse: Daniel Boone.

1-AA — Sullivan East ran through the regular season with a 10-0 mark, but don’t hand the district hardware to the Patriots just yet.

East probably has the best overall team, but Elizabethton isn’t very far behind and may actually be in a neck-and-neck race with the Patriots. Blowing a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter at East might have hurt, but could also qualify the home-standing Cyclones as co-favorites.

Then there’s the curious case of Unicoi County. The Blue Devils were once 4-10 on the season, but have won 10 of 12 heading into tonight’s game at Cloudland. Counting out this scrappy bunch wouldn’t be wise.

Just because of Chase Arnold, Sullivan North deserves mention but the Raiders have lost seven of their last 10 games. Likewise, Johnson County looks like a sinking ship with eight losses in its last 12 contests.

Favorite: Sullivan East.

Predicted winner: Sullivan East.

Darkhorse: Unicoi County.

1-A — If this was a bunch of wolves fighting in the wilderness, there would be fur flying and blood dripping.

Fortunately it’s just a bunch of hard-nosed basketball players and enough talent to make this event worth watching.

Unaka had a slight mental edge with its win over Cloudland on Tuesday and follow-up victory over University High. However, the Highlanders probably got the edge back with a double-overtime win over Hampton on Friday combined with Unaka’s one-point loss to Johnson County on Saturday. Also, Cloudland expects injured Devin Whitehead back on the court, giving it a better matchup against Unaka.

Cloudland doesn’t have home-court advantage, but did play two good games against top-notch opponents on Science Hill’s court in December.

Meanwhile, Hampton has the dogs, so to speak, to make some noise. University High may not have enough horses to get back-to-back wins, but could be a tough out in a one-game regional tournament setting.

Favorite: Cloudland.

Predicted winner: Cloudland.

Darkhorse: Hampton.

1-AAA girls — Not a lot needs to be said about this one. Throw out a three-point loss against nationally ranked Marion County, Ky., and the Lady Hilltoppers have won by margins of 22 points or more against everybody except Tennessee High.

So the Lady Vikings are probably the only team that can legitimately view Science Hill as an upset target. Ashlee Mitchell gives Tennessee High the type of player a team needs to compete with the Lady Hilltoppers.

Favorite: Science Hill.

Predicted winner: Science Hill.

Darkhorse: Tennessee High.

1-AA girls — After beating Elizabethton, Unicoi County’s girls needed overtime to beat Happy Valley, topped Johnson County by two points, beat Unaka by seven, edged Johnson County by one point, and then lost to Hampton by two points.

The good news is Unicoi is winning, but the bad news is the Lady Blue Devils are just scraping by — especially considering the Lady Longhorns haven’t earned a league win.

Meanwhile, Elizabethton has won 10 of its last 11 games, including a 30-point thumping of 20-win team South Greene. The Lady Cyclones have adjusted against adversity and have home-court advantage.

Sullivan East, Happy Valley and Johnson County all have reasons to believe they can factor in the championship-game mix.

Favorite: Unicoi County.

Predicted winner: Elizabethton.

Darkhorse: Happy Valley.

1-A — Cloudland somehow managed to pull itself out of adversity-laden quicksand, and the Lady Highlanders earned the regular season title.

Clearly, this a team with enough firepower to win the district title. Meanwhile, Hampton and North Greene are both good enough to give the Lady Highlanders a run for their money.

The tipping point, however, will likely be the combination of Brooke Rhodes and Courtney Wilson, a damaging duo playing at a very high level as the postseason arrives.

Favorite: Cloudland.

Predicted winner: Cloudland.

Darkhorse: Hampton.

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