COLUMBUS - The good news for the St. John's Jesuit basketball team is that it surpassed expectations just by getting beyond the Division I district tournament. Winning the regional was a bonus for veteran coach Ed Heintschel's 21-5 Titans.
The bad news is, their prize for earning a spot in the D-I semifinals today at 5:15 p.m. at Value City Arena in Columbus is a matchup with top-ranked defending state champion Canton McKinley (23-2).
The Bulldogs of 11th-year coach Dave Hoover are not just a fine basketball team. Some think they are the best Canton McKinley team ever - no small statement considering this school has made more final-four appearances (23) than any other school in Ohio tournament history.
With a repeat state title, McKinley would be included in discussions by Ohio high school basketball historians who debate the ranking of the state's top all-time teams.
McKinley, which defeated Cincinnati St. Xavier 51-42 in last year's D-I final, returns four starters and eight of its top nine players from last season.
The four returning starters scored 46 of the 51 title-game points, and the eight total returnees accounted for 90 percent of the offense in last year's two games at state.
One of 26-1 McKinley's wins last season was a 44-40 victory over St. John's at the Bulldogs' holiday tournament. That Titan team included All-Ohio players B.J. Raymond (now at Xavier) and Zach Hillesland (Notre Dame).
"We know them pretty well," Heintschel said. "We know how deep and talented they are. They have no apparent flaws. Hopefully we will not be intimidated."
Leading the Pups, as McKinley followers call their team, is Division I player of the year Raymar Morgan, a 6-foot-8 senior forward who averages 24.3 points per game.
"Morgan is long, athletic, skilled and mobile," Heintschel said. "He's a tremendous player and we don't have a real matchup for him. That'll be a monumental challenge."
In a recent survey conducted by the Canton Repository newspaper, the Michigan State-bound Morgan was the top vote getter (20.8 percent) in a poll rating McKinley's all-time best players.
Ranking behind Morgan were Gary Grant (19.2 percent), who led McKinley to its only other state title (1984) before playing at Michigan and in the NBA, and eventual NBA players Nick Weatherspoon (19.2), Phil Hubbarb (17.0) and Eric Snow (15.7).
McKinley has lost twice this season - 69-67 on a last-second shot to the O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker-led Cincinnati North College Hill team that is ranked No. 3 in the nation by USA Today, and 51-50 to Oak Hill Academy (USA Today's No. 2-ranked team) in the first game of the season.
"We're a year older and a year wiser, and Morgan is more of a dominant player," Hoover said of how his team has changed from last year. "We're a better outside shooting team, and we have one more year of playing in bigger games."
When asked how he will remember these Bulldogs, Hoover responded: "This is a team with a lot of individual talent and skill who values playing as a team. They've been unselfish in the way they share the ball. People look at our offensive ability, but this is a great defensive team also."
Are the Bulldog players aware of their potential place in state basketball history if they repeat?
"I think they [are], and I think they cherish the challenge of trying to reach that," said Hoover, who noted two specific goals his team can reach.
The last team to win back-to-back big-school Ohio titles was Cincinnati Elder (1973-74), and the last team to take consecutive state poll and state tournament titles was Columbus East (1968-69).
St. John's won't feel the heat of being favored, like it was in a 2004 title-game loss to Hamilton.
"There is no pressure in terms of expectation," Heintschel said. "I just hope that we don't act like we're in awe of these guys. We know they're good players, but we just have to go out and compete with them and try to put obstacles out for them to overcome."
"I am extremely proud and happy for these guys that they've done this. But, by the same token, as long as we're going down there, we might as well play the doggone thing to win it."
Senior 6-foot-7 forward Andrew Taylor was a top sub on the Titans' 2004 runner-up team.
"It's a big task, but we're ready and we're up for the challenge," Taylor said. "We're just going to go out there and have fun. Play together and play strong. We really won't have much pressure on us because we're the underdogs. I think we'll have a lot of fight in us."
Jonathan Dunn, St. John's 6-foot-3 senior guard and scoring leader (18.8 average), also remains optimistic.
"They're a very good team, and we know that," said Dunn, a second-team All-Ohioan. "But we didn't come this far and practice so hard just to make it here. We want to win it all, so we're going to come out and play hard.
"As the competition rises up, we're going to have to rise to meet the challenge, meet their level of play. We have to believe in ourselves and go from there."
- Steve Junga