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Open Division boys' basketball playoffs are greatly balanced

Eric Sondheimer
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Anyone can beat anyone in Open Division boys' basketball playoffs

Parity.

That's the appropriate word to describe the 16-team Southern Section Open Division boys' basketball playoffs that begin Thursday night. There are eight first-round games and zero chance the seedings are going to hold up as chosen.

In each game, any team can win. That will create excitement and intrigue. And don't call it an upset if a higher-seeded team loses.

"It's weirdness for your community," La Verne Damien Coach Matt Dunn said. "It's like you're being dumped into a CIF championship game in your first game. If you win one, you've won a CIF championship. Then you try to win another."

This is the second year of the Open Division, which pulls out the best teams from the Southern Section's 11 other divisions. Lots of schools didn't want to be part of it, feeling they would be denied a chance to win a championship in their regularly assigned divisions. But the Open Division games are so good that one day coaches and fans are going to start complaining when their schools aren't selected.

The first-round matchup of 22-time section champion Santa Ana Mater Dei against 10-time champion Los Angeles Price is an example of how good the division is.

Price would have been in Division 6 and coasted to an 11th title. But Coach Michael Lynch's goal was always to earn a spot in the Open Division.

"We got what we asked for," he said.

Except Price didn't want to be seeded No. 15 and have to play at No. 2 Mater Dei, which has a 65-game home winning streak. But remember, it was No. 1 Mater Dei needing overtime to defeat No. 16 Montebello Cantwell-Sacred Heart in last year's playoff opener. So everybody better ignore the seedings.

Has there been a prep tournament where the No. 1-seeded team had to face a team with only one defeat in its playoff opener? That's the reward for No. 1 Torrance Bishop Montgomery (26-1), which faces No. 16 Riverside JW North (24-1).

It's another example of how every game is like playing a championship game.

"I think there's about eight teams that can win a state title," Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight said. "Being on the road in the Open Division is very difficult. Anybody can get knocked off."

Because Mater Dei doesn't have Stanley Johnson this season (he's at the University of Arizona), some have lost confidence in a team that has won four consecutive state titles. Hold off on the demise of the Monarchs. They're 24-3 and peaking.

"We've won 14 straight," McKnight said. "The kids are coming every night and playing defense. That's our signature right now. We challenge most everyone's shot and MJ Cage is so good at blocking shots and altering shots and rebounding."

The opening games: North at Bishop Montgomery; Cathedral at Redondo; Orange Lutheran at Damien; Alemany at Corona Centennnial; St. John Bosco at Sierra Canyon; Cantwell-Sacred Heart at Etiwanda; Chino Hills at Long Beach Poly; Price at Mater Dei.

As someone who has seen all 16 Open Division teams play this season, my pick to win it all is Corona Centennial. The Huskies have size, depth and a great point guard in Sedrick Barefield.

But Centennial also could easily lose its opener to Alemany.

It's truly going to be about finding a way to survive and advance to the next round.

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