The basketball season is winding down, so the Juneau-Douglas High School boys basketball team is thinking about positioning.
The Crimson Bears host the East Anchorage Thunderbirds for two varsity games this weekend with game times at 8 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday at the JDHS main gym. As the last non-Region V games of the season, this is the last time this year where Juneau can improve its ranking in the Winning Percentage Index (WPI), the strength-of-schedule formula used to seed teams in the state tournament.
"If the (state) tournament started today, East is a team we might see in the first round," said Juneau senior center Byron Wild, who is fourth on the team in scoring at 9.4 points a game and leads in rebounding with 7.1 a game.
Juneau is ranked seventh in the current WPI standings, with the two other Southeast teams 14th and 15th. There's a sharp drop-off after the top two teams in the WPI standings - top-ranked Wasilla and defending state champion Bartlett. But the next group of nine teams are all ranked within 0.06 of each other, and there's been a lot of movement within that group when the WPI standings have been updated twice a week.
The Crimson Bears saw that last weekend when they traveled north for three games against WPI No. 3 Colony (a 68-50 loss), No. 8 Chugiak (a 57-53 victory) and No. 1 Wasilla (a 66-41 loss). East, which lost 88-77 in overtime to No. 10 Dimond on Tuesday, fell from No. 3 to No. 5 in the midweek WPI standings.
"We're disappointed we didn't play as well as we wanted to, but after going 1-2 on the trip we went from eighth to sixth in the WPI," Juneau coach George Houston said before the midweek rankings dropped the Crimson Bears to seventh. "If we're able to do anything against East, it's the last chance we'll have to move up since they're ranked ahead of us. Upsets are worth a lot of points in the WPI. If you lose to a team you shouldn't it can really hit ya."
In last week's state poll, Juneau (10-6 overall) and East (10-8 overall) were both tied for fourth place. Both teams fell out of poll this week and are in the "also receiving votes" part of the rankings, with Juneau having one more point than East.
The Thunderbirds, who struggled through their first losing season in nearly three decades last year, have been impressive at times this season. Last Saturday, East gave Bartlett a strong run before falling 94-84.
"They have a new coach and they enjoy playing for him," Juneau senior point guard Joe Ayers said. "We're just excited to play some games. We've got a lot of stuff we need to work on."
"They've got a lot of the same guys we saw last year," Houston said of the Thunderbirds, who lost 83-61 to Juneau in the East T-Bird Classic last season. "They're playing hard and they looked good early this season when we saw them at the Dimond tournament (the Alaska Prep Shootout). East is a pressing team, so we've got to handle the basketball. We might have trouble with their quickness."
East has a balanced scoring attack, even though early season top scorer Derek Laws is no longer on the roster because of grades. In Tuesday's loss to Dimond, five East players scored in double figures and seven players had at least seven points - 6-foot-2 senior forward Ben Eppenger-Robinson - who led with 17 points - 6-0 junior guard Rickey Mason, 6-2 senior forward Johnathan Zuker, 6-2 junior forward Ozelle Jamestown, 5-9 sophomore guard Jordan Jamestown, 6-2 junior forward Casey Flair and 6-4 senior forward Bennie Holt.
"They're short and quick," Juneau junior forward David Jones said. "We all (Juneau's younger players) played against the Jamestown brothers in middle school. We remember when they came in with Angoon and beat us in the Fast Break tournament."
Houston warned the Juneau players about the Jamestown brothers, who still have an older sister (Amber) playing basketball for Angoon. He said this weekend will be like a homecoming for the two former Angoon players, and he expects a lot of Angoon residents in the crowd. The Angoon boys and girls teams, though, will be in Hoonah playing in the Icy Straits Tournament, as will the two Juneau junior varsity teams.
One Juneau player who won't be traveling with the JV team this week is freshman forward Josh Monagle, who went from being a player deep on the bench at the start of the season to earning a start against Chugiak on Friday.
"It was scary at first, but the seniors settled me down," Monagle said. "I think I'm working a little harder."
Junior guard Alex Heumann, who injured his right (shooting) hand last week in practice, erased any doubts about his injury status in the Chugiak game when he made four 3-pointers and led Juneau with 18 points.
"I have to keep taping it up," Heumann said. "It bothered me a little bit at first, but it's all right now."
Senior forward Bryan Hamey is leading the Crimson Bears in scoring with 12.1 points a game, plus he's second in rebounds (5.1) and assists (3.0). Heumann is second in scoring (10.2), while senior guard Sterling Henderson is third in scoring (9.4) and assists (2.6). Ayers is fifth in scoring (7.4), leads the team in assists (3.1) and is third in rebounds (3.0).
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.