The season is now more than a month and a half old, but Juneau’s prep hoopsters have yet to be tested like they will be this weekend when Wasilla visits the capital city for a three-game road trip.
The 8-4 Warriors boys’ basketball team, ranked fourth in the Alaska Association of Basketball Coaches Poll, will square off with Thunder Mountain (4-12, 0-2) tonight at TMHS before a two-game series with Juneau-Douglas (10-4, 2-0) on Friday and Saturday.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us. They’re ranked above us in the (Winning Percentage Index), they have an elite player and not only that, but they kicked the tar out of us last year in the state tournament,” JDHS coach Steve Potter said. “When you’re highly ranked it usually means you’re doing something right, and I think they do things right.
“They usually play pretty tough man (defense), they cut hard and they rebound well. They play basketball the right way.”
The Crimson Bears’ strength all year has been their size inside, but that’s about to be tested. Wasilla’s two leading scorers, juniors Connor Devine and Braydon Kuiper, stand 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-4, respectively, and are capable of scoring from anywhere on the floor.
While he might not necessarily be larger in girth, at 6-foot-9, Devine is taller than anyone Juneau-Douglas can throw at him. His 16.6 points, 10 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per game also prove he’s more than just a big body inside.
“(Devine) is a talented player. We just have to move our feet and not let him set up where he wants. He can shoot the 3-pointer and he also two-hand dunked on us in the post during the state tournament,” Potter said. “He can do it from wherever he is on the floor, and we just need to make sure we guard him. He’s tough going to the board and if you let him get the ball, he’s going to score.”
But he’s not the only threat Wasilla poses.
“They have another good player (Kuiper) who’s a pretty strong player,” Potter said. “He’s been scoring in big bunches for them this year.”
Kuiper’s numbers aren’t that far behind Devine’s at 15.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, but he plays the role of swingman for the Warriors. His size on the perimeter will certainly test Juneau-Douglas’ smaller guards, but Potter said he has seen improvement in his squad in recent weeks.
“We played a little better against Mt. Edgecumbe (on Jan. 27). They’re obviously a tough matchup for us, but I thought we defended them pretty well,” he said. “Our offense still has those lulls we’re working hard to overcome, but we’re hoping this weekend will give us a chance to try out a couple of new things we’re working on.
“We’ll see if we can be more effective.”
The Bears have the size to battle with the 6-foot-9 Devine, but for the other hometown team, the Falcons, it is sure to be a tall order.
Thunder Mountain’s tallest player is 6-foot-3 Sam Jahn, with younger brother Ben spelling him in the post at 6-foot-2.
“We’ll try and guard 6-foot-9 with 6-foot-2. It’s going to be tough,” Falcons coach John Blasco admitted. “Juneau(-Douglas) is in the same boat as Wasilla in terms of their big guys, so we’re going to have to try a few different things and guys are going to have to work extremely hard on the defensive end. We’re not going to be able to muscle up and be as tall, obviously, so we’re going to have to work with our feet.”
Without going as far as revealing a game plan before tonight’s tilt with the Warriors, Blasco said his squad will try a few different tactics to try and neutralize their bigs’ effectiveness.
“We’re going to try a couple of different things in hopes of limiting his scoring opportunities inside,” he said. “But once he gets the ball within a six-foot radius (of the basket), we’re not big enough to stop him.”
But Blasco said that’s nothing his team isn’t already accustomed to.
“Virtually every team we’ve faced this year has been bigger than us, so we kind of know that going into each game we’ll be the smaller guys,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter how many times you play against (size), you’re still undermatched in terms of physicality. You just have to be ready to battle and stay out of foul trouble, and we can’t be afraid to go to the basket just because they’re big.”
Such a difficult matchup against a top-five team in the state will prepare the Falcons well for their conference matchups in Ketchikan this weekend, Blasco said.
“Every game is a measuring stick in terms of seeing your improvement and continuing to get better,” he said. “But this week is definitely a very tough week for us — not only facing a team like Wasilla on Thursday night, but traveling down to play Ketchikan on back-to-back nights, which is another very tough team that’s also in our conference.
“This week will be a measuring stick as far as seeing where we’re at after playing both Juneau and Ketchikan two times each in the conference.”
Heading into two crucial matchups with the Kings, Blasco said he likes the way his group is starting to jell.
“I’m actually feeling better about the way we’re playing. We’re starting to play the way we want to play and we’re starting to get more comfortable with each other,” he said. “I think that’s evident by the scores of the games — they’re getting closer, more competitive. Guys are definitely starting to feel more comfortable out on the floor and in our system.”
The Falcons and Warriors tip off today at 6:30 p.m. at Thunder Mountain High School. Juneau-Douglas and Wasilla will battle at 8 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday at JDHS.