It's the beginning of March and the Juneau-Douglas boys basketball team is right where it normally is - perched firmly atop the Southeast standings.
The Crimson Bears continue their march for an eighth straight Region V-Class 4A title when they travel to Ketchikan for games at 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday. Both games will be broadcast on KJNO 800 AM.
At the beginning of the season, Juneau's continued dominance of the region was suspect. The Crimson Bears lost all its starters and returned just three seniors. But now the young faces of the Juneau boys basketball team are making a name for themselves.
Juneau is undefeated in region (4-0, 12-6 overall) and dominated the second half of two games against Ketchikan two weeks ago. Riding an eight-game winning streak, Juneau's two-game set with the Kings this weekend is crucial to keep its momentum going into the Southeast Tournament on March 15-18 in Ketchikan.
``We've seen growth in our younger players in terms of maturity and their approach to the game,'' Houston said. ``But some are still kids, and that's why this weekend is so important. Ketchikan is the tournament sight and we're playing the home team.''
Head coach George Houston likes to preach durable sports cliches this time of year about how to never overlook a region opponent. He has good reason. In 1997, a dominant Crimson Bears squad was upset at home by Sitka late in the season.
``The teams (Juneau and Ketchikan) play a similar style. We're both fairly close in terms of ability and talent,'' Houston said. ``It comes down to how well you perform any given night. That might be a cliche, but it's true.''
The Crimson Bears defeated Ketchikan 66-58 and 83-61 in physical games in Juneau two weeks ago, but both games were tight at halftime. After a 41-41 halftime draw in which both teams shot well over 50 percent from the floor, Ketchikan cooled off and Juneau wore down the weary Kings in its 83-61 win.
Kings coach John Brown said the difference came down to rebounding. Juneau was able to maintain its physical play in the second half and battle for offensive rebounds while Ketchikan faded in that department.
``In both games, that's where that power and strength comes in,'' Brown said. ``You get to bangin' and if you can't maintain that you'll lose.''
A key for Juneau has been stable guard play. Starters Clay Brown and John Blasco have shored up the backcourt positions, allowing leading scorer Evan Tromble to move back to his natural forward position, where his rebounding and inside play are key. Guard Curtis Lane is an instant scoring threat off the bench, and freshman Joe Ayers is maturing. Also, 6-foot-5 center Rick Carte returned from injury last weekend, giving the Crimson Bears another big body inside.
Ketchikan (2-4, 10-9) earned a split with Sitka (2-4, 11-9) last weekend. This series with Juneau is Ketchikan's last batch of Class 4A region games for the year, while Juneau wraps up its region season next weekend against Sitka. Then it's on to the regional tournament in Ketchikan, where Juneau has staked its claim for most of the past decade.
Houston said he expects a hostile crowd in Ketchikan because of that past.
``No matter who we play in Southeast, we're going to be the bad guy because of what we've done in the past,'' Houston said. ``That's normal, but you have to prepare for that.''
For Ketchikan, the month of March has not been kind - the last time the Kings won Southeast was 1989. Under Brown, who led Ketchikan to four straight state titles in the 60s, the Kings hope to change all that.
``At this point in the season all the games are crucial,'' Brown said. ``Especially with just three teams in the region. We need to show we can beat Juneau. I really do think we can make some statements this weekend if we play well.''