Free State High doesn't look like the No. 1 basketball team in the state -- at least not before the opening tip.
The Firebirds don't have a player taller than 6-foot-3. They run a unique five-guard lineup, with Danny Pike (6-3) battling bigger players down on the blocks. On most nights, coach Jack Schreiner doesn't give meaningful minutes to more than three players on his bench.
But Lawrence High coach Chris Davis knows the Firebirds are for real.
"They play with no agendas other than to win," said Davis, whose team will face the Firebirds at 7:30 tonight at Free State. "They play good team basketball. They don't care who scores or who gets the steals. They're all about playing together. That can make a winner out of a lot of teams."
Free State won its 10th game in a row and improved to 12-1 after a 55-39 victory Friday night over Shawnee Mission North.
Schreiner wasn't worried about his team getting too cocky.
"We've had great practices and great competition at practice," he said. "They're still working hard. If they're overconfident, they're doing a good job of fooling me."
People hadn't taken much notice of the Firebirds when they started out 2-1 with a loss to traditional state power Olathe South in the semifinals of the O-South tournament. But the Firebirds crushed O-South, 71-52, in a rematch five games later at South, then rolled through the Topeka Invitational Tournament with victories over state powers Wichita East and Highland Park.
Senior Brady Morningstar scored 75 points in the Firebirds' three-game run to the tournament title. He's averaging 19 points per game.
"The (recruiting) interest has peaked since the Topeka tournament," Schreiner said of Morningstar, who has been contacted by Butler, Wichita State and Colorado State, among others. "If he continues, he'll be fine."
But Free State's surprising start can't be explained by Morningstar alone. Senior Sam Buhler has provided tough defense and leadership, Pike has held his own in the paint, and Bobby Underwood and Matt Green have provided outside shooting. Nick Ayre and Scott Heitshusen each have made pivotal plays off the bench.
"We need to do the same thing," said Davis, whose team is 8-5 following Friday night's loss to Shawnee Mission South. "We need to play team basketball, and I think we have been."
The Lions stumbled to a 3-2 start, suffering a 59-48 home loss to Free State on Dec. 17, but LHS won five of its next seven. Senior center Tony Anderson leads LHS with averages of 14 points and nine rebounds, and guards Brennan Bechard, Tyler Knight and David Freeman each contribute about 10 points a game.
"With Tony's presence inside, we have to take more advantage of that than we did the first time," Davis said. "And we have to be ready for their defensive pressure. That's one of their biggest ways of scoring."
Free State won three of four meetings with LHS last season.
"At least we don't have to play them four times like last year," Schreiner said. "It's always tough to beat somebody twice, but I like the fact that we're at home."
Free State's girls also will play host to LHS at 6 tonight. The Lions won the last meeting, 51-37, and have won eight straight in the series.