Boys Basketball Districts Preview: Will northern Michigan see one of its teams make it to East Lansing?

Feb. 25—TRAVERSE CITY — NCAA's March Madness is still a few weeks away but the February Frenzy of boys basketball district tournament action gets underway Monday.

First-round action is no doubt full of interesting storylines and intriguing matchups, including Traverse City Central (6-15) heading to Gaylord (10-12) for some playoff basketball between two Big North foes that split the season series.

Other marquee matchups Monday include Grayling at Kingsley, Elk Rapids versus Mancelona — a battle of the Lake Michigan Conference champion against the Ski Valley Conference co-champion — at Charlevoix, and Frankfort at Traverse City Christian.

Here are four burning questions ahead of Monday's postseason start.

1. Who are the favorites to make a run to East Lansing?

Last year saw Traverse City St. Francis and Frankfort make an appearance in the Final Four at Michigan State University's Breslin Center. Both the Gladiators and Panthers have some work to do, but a repeat appearance can't be counted out.

Cadillac, which is ranked 16th in the Division 1 Michigan AP rankings, has put together a spectacular season at 20-2, but, historically, it has not been easy for northern Michigan teams to come out of Division 1 and make it to the Breslin. That doesn't mean the Vikings can't do it.

With Record-Eagle Player of the Year candidate Charlie Howell leading the way along with strong contributions from the likes of Eli Main and Kyle McGowan along with a solid supporting cast, there's no reason why Cadillac cannot make some serious noise and be seen as a state title contender.

McBain comes in ranked sixth in Division 3 by the Michigan AP and is fourth in the MHSAA Power Ratings. Just like Cadillac, the Ramblers are led by a versatile big man in Evan Haverkamp, who is capable of taking over a game on both ends of the floor, and — just like Cadillac — they finished the season 20-2, with one of those losses coming against the Vikings.

The Ramblers see either Traverse City St. Francis or Lake City in the district semifinals Wednesday at Benzie Central, and a win would pit McBain against either the 15th-ranked Huskies, Manton or Houghton Lake in the championship game. Whichever team comes out of that bracket will be battle-tested.

Glen Lake is also primed to make a run. Anchored by Jacob Plamondon — another big man doing big things — the Division 4 sixth-ranked Lakers are under the watchful eye of head coach Jason Bradford, who led the Glen Lake girls team to East Lansing where they won a championship last season.

The Lakers are 18-4 and have won three straight coming into Monday after falling to Northwest Conference champion Benzie by just two points in a game they trailed 20-3 after the first quarter. They'll battle either Suttons Bay or Grand Traverse Academy in the semis, so they will need to avoid the upset to move on.

2. Who is this year's Cinderella with the potential to do what Frankfort did last year?

It's tough to dub conference champions with the Cinderella moniker; but when the glass slipper fits, it just fits. And Northwest Conference champion Benzie Central, Lake Michigan Conference champion Elk Rapids, Ski Valley Conference co-champions Bellaire and Mancelona, and Northern Lakes Conference champion Harbor Light seem to have the right shoe size.

Benzie's hard-nosed, fast-paced, run-and-gun style of play should carry them to a win in the district semis, especially with the tournament being on their home court. But getting out of their district could mean beating the aforementioned McBain Ramblers, who prefer to slow things down and play a steady and deliberate brand of basketball that could take the Huskies (18-4) out of their element.

Elk Rapids is an interesting team because the Elks are just that — a team. Each game seems to produce someone else stepping up and leading the way, be it Haven Somers or Owen Spencer or Christian Kerfoot or Noah Hilley or Keagen Cotterman. The list goes on. If any team is reminiscent of last year's surprise Frankfort squad, it's the Elks.

Both Bellaire and Mancelona are obvious candidates, although Bellaire is ranked 10th in the D4 AP rankings and ninth in the Power Ratings, so they should be expected to do well with the likes of Jayden Hanson, Drake Koepke and Dawson Derrer. Mancelona can depend on a bevy of players, including Ivan Kuzmanoski, Aiden Dixon, Tavin Morgan, Ryan Naumcheff and others to make a surprising postseason run.

And then there is Harbor Light. You won't find them in the D4 AP rankings or the Power Ratings, but the 18-4 squad has plenty of potential to become the biggest belle of the ball if the offense clicks and the defense forces turnovers while not allowing their opponents any extra opportunities.

3. West, Central, St. Francis or Christian: Which Traverse City team makes the deepest run?

None of the Traverse City teams have an easy road out of districts, but you could certainly count Traverse City Central as a possible fit for those glass slippers if reigning Record-Eagle Player of the Year Anthony Ribel stays healthy. Ribel seems healthy now, and the Trojans have won three straight to end the season, but they would likely see crosstown rival Traverse City West in the district championship game if both teams make it that far.

The Titans (17-5) bested the Trojans in both meetings this season — 65-59 and 59-53 — and West carries a deep, talented roster featuring Ben Habers, Quinten Gillespie, Caden Stoops and Winslow Robinson among others. West uses its speed and athleticism to make up for a lack of height, but the Titans' ability to shoot from outside and rebound well despite the height disadvantage has carried them to a lot of victories.

If the Trojans get by Gaylord, they will have to travel to Marquette for the semifinals. The Titans earned a first-round bye and await the winner of Petoskey and Alpena, two teams West is a combined 4-0 against this season.

Traverse City St. Francis (9-12) has faced a tough slate of opponents down the stretch of the regular season, including both McBain and Cadillac. The Gladiators lost both of those contests, but stiff competition can be good preparation for the playoffs. A win over Lake City would put the Glads back in front of McBain, which beat them 36-34. If they can knock off the Ramblers, Benzie Central likely awaits them.

Traverse City Christian could be a dangerous team if they get hot, or the Sabres could find themselves at home early if they go cold. Reece Broderick is one of the better scorers in northern Michigan; but as he goes, the team goes. A couple of early baskets from Broderick in the Sabres' game against Frankfort on Monday could go a long way in settling the rest of the TC Christian roster down and finding that groove.

4. What team's district draw could produce an early upset?

Upsets are tough to pick, and they've been even tougher to come by this season as most of the favorites during the regular season have come away victorious.

With the Traverse City Central Trojans earning a low seed but getting back the ultra-talented Ribel at the right time, they could certainly be an upsetmaker. The winner of Monday's game between Kingsley and Grayling falls into that category as well. Grayling has a talented roster that has shown flashes, and the Stags have a dangerous outside game that is contagious.

Mancelona versus Elk Rapids seems to be an upset either way as a conference champion will head home after the first day no matter the outcome. St. Francis knocking off McBain would be an upset, but the Gladiators no doubt believe they can beat the Ramblers.

Mesick and Bear Lake both have the potential to play spoiler in Buckley's district tournament, and it will be one or the other that gets that opportunity after the Bulldogs and Lakers square off Monday. Suttons Bay has the talent on its team to give Glen Lake a game, but the Norsemen will have to play a perfect game to get by the Lakers if they can beat Grand Traverse Academy on Monday.