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The Juneau-Douglas High School boys basketball team has been making things look easy on its own court, jumping out to a 5-0 overall record that includes four blowout wins.
But a much bigger challenge awaits Juneau on its first road trip of the season, when the Crimson Bears play three of the state's top teams beginning today against the Dimond Lynx.
The Lynx, ranked second in the Alaska Sportswriters' Polls released Jan. 16, are just a warm-up for the T-Bird Classic Basketball Tournament. The T-Bird Classic is hosted by East Anchorage on Thursday through Saturday, and the Crimson Bears will meet the No. 1- and No. 3-ranked teams in the state.
"It's going to be a real good challenge," Juneau starting point guard Junior Cumlat said. "It's gut-check time. We want to show that we belong up there. All they (the media) talk about up there is Anchorage. We don't get any respect."
"It's a hell of a road trip," Crimson Bears head coach George Houston said. "It's an opportunity for us to play with the best teams in the state. We'll find out a lot about ourselves this week."
Juneau plays Dimond today at 7:30 p.m. and tips off the T-Bird Classic against top-ranked Wasilla at 4 p.m. on Thursday. Juneau plays East at 6 p.m. on Friday, and it closes out the tournament against third-ranked Bartlett at 4 p.m. on Saturday. All games will be broadcast by KINY radio, AM-830.
The Lynx (8-2) do not have a lot of size but are very athletic. Forward Brandon Joseph plays much bigger than his 6-foot, 2-inch listing and guard Joe Chirhart is one of the state's best outside shooters. Most recently, the Lynx were defeated by No. 4 Service, 56-53 on Tuesday.
"Dimond is the one we're worried about," Houston said. "They're the first ones we play for one thing, we try not to look past opponents. They got Chirhart who scored 35 points in that one game earlier this year and Joseph tore us up inside last year."
However, Juneau also boasts another one of the state's best shooters in guard Curtis Lane who is averaging 13.4 points over his first five games. Forward Ryan Monagle leads the well-balanced Bear attack with a 14-point-per-game average.
Cumlat nearly doubled his season scoring average from 4.7 to 8.2 points in Juneau's most recent games against Ketchikan -- scoring 14 and 13 points on Friday and Saturday, respectively -- to add yet another scoring threat to Juneau's offense. Bryan Hamey, Joe Ayers, Sterling Henderson and Craig Kitka and recently, Ray Zimmer, have added spark off the Juneau bench, which has regularly gone 10-12 players deep.
Center Byron Wild, who's listed at 6-5, and 6-4 forward Jake Miller have shown they can bang underneath, while combining to average 13 points and 11.8 rebounds. But both will have a daunting task ahead of them against Wasilla and Bartlett, who both sport much taller players than Juneau has seen this season.
Wasilla (4-3) presents a challenge in 6-10 Ray Schafer and 6-4 Adam Fitt-Chappell. Schafer and Fitt-Chappell combined for 42 points in a 67-64 overtime loss to Bartlett on Friday.
Bartlett (9-0) is led by 6-7 Andrew Smith, who is a state player of the year candidate, and 6-5 forward Andre Moss, who transferred from East.
"I'm not scared," Wild said. "They're just taller than me. I just have to stay in front of him and focus on playing defense before he gets the ball. If he can't get the ball, he can't do anything. I'm also going to have to stay out of foul trouble, because after me and Jake, there isn't much left."
"Size doesn't intimidate when you're talking about it," Houston retorted. "But it's different when you get on the floor. He's (Byron) going to have to be ready. He's capable of it. He's a long 6-5, but he's giving up some size."
But size isn't everything for Wasilla and Bartlett, as both teams also feature top-notch guards to test Juneau's tandem of Lane and Cumlat. Bartlett sophomore Doug Hardy and freshman Mario Chalmers combined for 29 points and 14 steals against Wasilla.
"Bartlett's guards totally outplayed the guards from Wasilla," Houston said. "It was surprising because Wasilla has a guard who's started the last four years."
Cumlat says he likes the challenge and can hardly wait to get on the court with the Anchorage schools. "Bartlett's fast-paced by us. It'll be a good matchup," he said.
"I think our guards can play with anyone," Wild said.
Traditionally, East has been a yearly powerhouse in Alaska high school basketball. But a fall-off in talent this season leaves the Thunderbirds the weakest team at this year's T-Bird Classic. The Crimson Bears already defeated East 82-56 on Dec. 27 at Juneau's Princess Capital City Classic, but the Thunderbirds were without top guard Derek Laws.
"East's got some different people," Houston said. "They certainly remember that blowout. We best be ready to play."
Jeff Kasper can be reached at email@example.com.