Ever since Free State High’s boys basketball team won a sub-state championship Friday at Olathe East, the Firebirds have heard the same couple of lines.
It usually goes something like: “Congratulations! But, what about this undefeated Blue Valley Northwest team you’ll have to play at state?”
Junior FSHS forward Khadre Lane understands why the team’s well-wishers hear about the Huskies’ 22-0 record and immediately inquire about the powerhouse program.
“We hear that, too, but we’ve been preparing in practice and believe that we can win,” Lane said, “and that’s the only way that we have a chance.”
Believers and doubters alike will find out today — 3 p.m. tip at Wichita’s Koch Arena, broadcast live on Metro Sports — whether the No. 8 seed Firebirds (11-11) have what it takes to upset No. 1 seed BVNW, making its fourth straight Class 6A state tournament appearance.
As Free State coach Chuck Law and his assistants have inspected video footage of the Huskies (state runners-up to Wichita Heights in 2010, 2011 and 2012), what they found was a how-to clinic on perimeter offense, led by junior point guard Clayton Custer, an Iowa State University commit. Law said the Huskies play three or four other guards with their four-star stud Custer, who averages more than 20 points a game, and everyone who touches the ball is prepared to attack the defense’s weakness.
“People overrate size and underestimate the importance of guys that can all dribble, pass, catch and shoot,” Law said. “Because if you put five guys out there that can do those things, you can beat anybody. You can play with anybody, irrespective of how disadvantaged you might be size-wise.”
Junior FSHS guard Keith Loneker said the Firebirds think they can match up with BVNW because they are a perimeter-oriented team, as well. When Huskies guards ignite their drive-and-kick offense, Loneker said Free State has athletic defenders such as Blake Winslow, Reshawn Caro and Lane to either cut them off or step in as help defenders.
“It’s gonna take a whole team effort, for sure,” Loneker added.
The Firebirds’ defense — beginning with starters Cole Moreano, Logan Bannister, Caro, Loneker and Lane, and continuing with backups Cody Scott, Kyle McFarland, Weston Hack, Innocent Anavberokhai and Winslow — has carried them to state. Loneker said their commitment to “D” began in practices as they started to get more physical with each other. “Don’t take it personal,” Loneker said of the approach. “This is how we get better.”
Caro said the players thrived once Law began turning more often to man-to-man defense, and FSHS is more likely to use bumps and muscle away from the ball than other teams.
“In a zone, you’re kind of just sitting around,” Caro said, “and in man you’re up and moving and you’re ready.”
Law knows his defenders will have to be attentive every second of their first-round game, because the Huskies play together better than most he has seen.
“They have an uncanny patience about them to get good shots,” the coach said.
The 6-foot Custer and BVNW have defeated top teams from Missouri, Minnesota and Iowa this season, and no opponent from Kansas has finished within double digits of the Huskies.
Moreano said Custer’s class used to kill its Lawrence counterparts when the players were younger, and that adds to the excitement of the challenge in front of the Firebirds today.
“We’re gonna bring it,” Moreano said, “and it’s gonna be a fun game to watch.”
The winner between FSHS and BVNW advances to a Friday semifinal against Derby (18-3) or Garden City (15-7).