David vs. Goliath: Ohio Division I State Final Four Preview

Trotwood-Madison hopes to win its first state championship in school history this weekend.

With Cinderella teams Upper Arlington and Cleveland East Tech two wins away from a state championship, usual powers Lakewood St. Edward and Trotwood-Madison pose as Goliath in state semifinal matchups.

As freshman guard Markell Johnson crossed over to his left with five seconds remaining in last Friday's regional final game vs. Uniontown Lake, the 6'0 Cleveland East Tech guard's pull-up jumpshot from just inside the free-throw line sent the Scarabs to its first state final four in 42 years. Meanwhile two hours south, Upper Arlington senior Kevin Vannatta wrapped up a legendary regional final performance, going for 27 points and 19 rebounds to take down powerhouse Columbus Northland to send the Golden Bears to its first state final four since 1939. One night prior, Trotwood-Madison made up a double-digit fourth quarter deficit to take down powerhouse Cincinnati Moeller, as senior guard Chris Mack's three-point field goal put the Rams ahead for good. As two Cinderella teams wrapped up regional titles last weekend, northeast Ohio juggernaut Lakewood St. Edward made easy work of Mansfield Senior, taking down the Tygers, 74-47.

Three days away from two mega-matchups for a state championship berth, let's take a look at how these games stack up.

Lakewood St. Edward (24-3) vs. Cleveland East Tech (24-3)

When: Fri. March 21 at 5:15 p.m.
Where: Schottenstein Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus

A look at the matchup:

Even without star sophomore forward Derek Funderburk, St. Edward's has made an inspired charge to a regional title behind first team All-Ohio combo-guard Kipper Nichols. Dispatching Cleveland St. Ignatius and Mansfield Senior en route to a regional title, St. Ed's is battled-tested and has been the superior team in every matchup this postseason, winning all six games by an average of 29.6 points per game.

On the other hand, East Tech has been the underdog in its last three games. Defeating defending state champion Mentor in the district finals, the Scarabs followed up that performance by handling Esa Ahmad and Shaker Heights, 70-54 in the regional semifinals. Matching up with Uniontown Lake in the regional finals, East Tech survived a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime, where Johnson's game-winning jumpshot would make the difference, 62-60.

By the Numbers

Points Per Game:

Lakewood St. Edward: 74.8 PPG

Cleveland East Tech: 84.4 PPG

Points Allowed Per Game:

Lakewood St. Edward: 53.2 PPG

Cleveland East Tech: 56.6 PPG

Key Players

Lakewood St. Edward:
Kipper Nichols (6'7 Junior SF, 17.6 PPG)

One of the top all-around players in Ohio's class of 2015, Nichols is a difficult matchup as his unique combination of brute and finesse play style are hard to contain. An elite slasher, Nichols can score from anywhere around the basket, but can also step out and hit from the perimeter with consistency. An active rebounder, Nichols is hard to keep off the offensive glass, and can create second-chance opportunities for his teammates. I look for East Tech to defend Nichols much like the Scarabs defended Ahmad in keeping a defender in front and behind of the talented post man at all times. Nichols is the key in the matchup vs. East Tech, as the Scarabs feature a four guard lineup that relies on its speed and transition scoring.

Marsalis Hamilton (6'3 Senior SF, 15.5 PPG)

Thickly-built senior combo-guard that can stretch the floor with perimeter shooting while being an effective slasher. Hamilton is a key piece to a Big Three for St. Ed's, as he is more than capable of going off for 25+ on any given night. Look for Hamilton and Nichols to attack the offensive glass against an undersized Scarabs unit.

Tony Vuyancih (6'3 Senior SG, 13.7 PPG)

After watching Vuyancih all summer long with Ohio Basketball Club, the silky-smooth senior was one of the better perimeter shooters that I had seen throughout the entire AAU circuit. An excellent spot-up shooter, Vuyancih can also attack the basket and finish at the cup. Look for the 6'3 senior to stretch the floor and break East Tech's zone with his perimeter shooting.

Cleveland East Tech:
KT Taylor (6'2 Senior SG, 25.2 PPG)

To keep it simple, Taylor gets buckets. The back-to-back Cleveland Senate League MVP, Taylor is a special player that can score from anywhere on the floor. A key piece to a Scarab team that likes to get up and down the floor in a hurry, Taylor is what makes East Tech go. When the 6'2 senior is on, the Scarabs are extremely hard to contain. In a December loss to Delaware Hayes, Taylor was contained for the most part in the first half, as the Pacers rotated lengthy defenders on him, a major part to a game that East Tech eventually lost, 63-59. St. Ed's will likely employ a similar strategy on Taylor in an effort to slow down the Scarab offensive attack.

Johnell Free (6'4 Senior SF, 15.7 PPG)

Free is arguably East Tech's best athlete, as the 6'4 senior is known for his powerful slams and rebounding ability. East Tech will need a lot of Free's physicality in Friday's game, as St. Ed's is arguably the most physical team left in the state. If Taylor isn't in a rhythm, look for Free, Anthony Carmon and Johnson to fill the void offensively, as the Scarabs are an extremely well-oiled scoring machine.

Anthony Carmon (6'0 Junior SG, 12.1 PPG)

A relatively hidden gem in the junior class in Ohio, Carmon is a guard in the mold of Taylor. A natural scorer, Carmon can stretch the floor with perimeter shooting, while also being able to slash and finish among taller defenders. As East Tech's four guards have combined for more than 50 points multiple times this postseason, look for Carmon & Co. to keep up the scoring antics on Friday.

Markell Johnson (5'11 Freshman PG, 10.6 PPG)

Arguably the top freshman in the state of Ohio, Johnson is an extremely athletic guard that plays above the rim. Having a bit of a breakout party at the Nike All-Ohio City Series in the fall, Johnson wowed spectators with his immense talent, taking defenders off the dribble and finishing with authority. One of the quickest guards left in the state, look for the mature freshman Johnson to have a big game on Friday.

Common Opponents

Cleveland Heights: St. Edward won 84-54 on Jan. 24; East Tech won 83-70 on Jan. 15
Mentor: St. Edward won 91-49 on Jan. 5; East Tech won 79-63 for a district title on March 8
Shaker Heights: St. Edward lost 53-50 on Feb. 11; East Tech won 70-54 in the regional semifinals on March 13

Outlook

Friday's semifinal game offers a bit of a David vs. Goliath theme, as East Tech, a public school in the inner-city of Cleveland takes on the St. Edward powerhouse of suburban Cleveland. Taking down three powerful teams in Mentor, Shaker Heights and Uniontown Lake to get to this point, East Tech is rolling with a great deal of momentum, accompanied with the confidence of a team that feels it can't be denied. On the other hand, St. Ed's hasn't won a game by single-digits since Feb. 20, rolling through a tournament run that the Eagles hope ends in a state championship. With a bigger front line, St. Edward has an advantage in the front court, and must hit the offensive glass hard to keep East Tech out of transition. If East Tech can secure defensive rebounds and get out into transition quickly, look for this game to be closer than what many are expecting. If Nichols and St. Ed's win the rebounding battle, while attacking the offensive glass, look for the Eagles to head to its first state championship appearance since 2008.

Upper Arlington (26-1) vs. Trotwood-Madison (25-2)

When: Fri. March 21 at 8:30 p.m.
Where: Schottenstein Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus

A look at the matchup:

As both Upper Arlington and Trotwood-Madison were underdogs in its regional final matchups, the Golden Bears and Rams each prevailed late, locking down on defense to secure major victories. As two defensively-stout squads go head-to-head on Friday, anything can happen. While Trotwood-Madison likes to use its speed to its advantage in the open floor to put up a statewide-best 87 points per game, Upper Arlington plays at a controlled pace, and has the ability stifle any offense it goes up against. Let's take a look at how these teams match up.

By the Numbers

Points Per Game

Upper Arlington: 59 PPG

Trotwood-Madison: 87 PPG

Points Allowed Per Game

Upper Arlington: 38 PPG

Trotwood-Madison: 61.5 PPG

Key Players

Upper Arlington:
Kevin Vannatta (6'3 Senior SG, 19 PPG)

Upper Arlington's emotional leader, Vannatta is fueling an historic postseason run for the Golden Bears, scoring 83 points and pulling down 30 rebounds in the last three games to lead UA to its first state tournament appearance in 75 years. One of Ohio's most efficient players, Vannatta is great at attacking the basket and drawing fouls. Adding on a great deal of strength since last season, Vannatta has become a much better rebounder, and has attacked the glass rigorously in the last three games. Similar in size to Trotwood's Dazhontae Bennett, look for the two talented seniors to go head-to-head in a matchup that might make the difference on Friday.

Danny Hummer (6'1 Senior PG, 9.2 PPG)

The facilitator of Upper Arlington's efficient offense, Hummer isn't the most prolific scorer, but is great at setting his teammates up for points. A strong ball-handler, Hummer rarely turns the ball over, and is great at handling full-court pressure, while being a major reason for why the Golden Bears have yet to falter against the full-court press. Playing alongside Vannatta for the majority of his playing days, Hummer has a great chance to go out on top with his bestfriend. Look for the two guards to be the key once again vs. an athletic Trotwood squad.

Trotwood-Madison
Dazhontae Bennett (6'2 Senior SF, 24.2 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 4.9 BPG)

Trotwood's jack-of-all-trades, Bennett might just be the most athletic player remaining in the state. An absolute scoring assassin, Bennett has went off for three 40-point games this season, in addition to a triple-double vs. Greenville on Jan. 24, in which Bennett went for 26 points, 11 rebounds and 11 blocks. One of Ohio's best leapers, Bennett can score in both the halfcourt and in the open floor, while being a deadly shooter from behind-the-arc, posting a 47.1 percent mark from three. Similar in stature to Vannatta, look for the two seniors stars to be the top matchup of the night.

Kendrick Mallory (6'1 Senior SG, 16.1 PPG)

Trotwood's second-leading scorer, Mallory is a tough senior guard that forms a fantastic backcourt duo for the Rams. Going off for a season-high 45 points vs. Fairmont on Feb. 11, Mallory will be a tough assignment for whoever Upper Arlington chooses to throw at him, as the guard is as quick as they come, and can finish strongly at the rim. Scoring just 20 points in Trotwood's last two games, Mallory will have to pick up production in Friday's contest for the Rams to overcome a stout Upper Arlington defense that is giving up an average of 38 points per game, two points less than what Bennett and Mallory average combined for the season.

Outlook

As two opposing styles will square off on Friday, something will have to give. Will Upper Arlington continue to flex its muscle defensively, or will the lightning-quick Rams overcome with instant offense? As the Golden Bears come in rolling with 25-consecutive wins, Trotwood has been equally impressive, dropping its only losses of the season to Prime Prep (Dallas, TX) and Dayton Dunbar. While Upper Arlington took down Division I powers Gahanna, Pickerington Central and Northland to get to the state tournament, the Golden Bears have yet to face a team with as much offensive firepower as Trotwood. If the Golden Bears can keep the Rams under 50 points, look for Upper Arlington to pull away late. However, if the Rams jump out to an early advantage, and continue to up the tempo without committing costly turnovers, expect Trotwood to prevail and have a chance to win its first state championship on Saturday.

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