World-Herald staff writer Stu Pospisil takes a look at the top Nebraska boys basketball teams.
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1. Omaha Central: In this last season of the Akoy Agau era, the Eagles are poised to make more history with a possible fourth consecutive state title. They also take a 36-game winning streak into the season. Biggest need for coach Eric Behrens is to rebuild the bench.
2. Omaha South: Only two players graduated from last year’s state runner-up team, so coach Bruce Chubick’s Packers stack up as being the deepest roster in the state. They’ll have one of the tallest front lines, starting with Kevin Harkins and Lyle Hexom. Cam Williams, who averaged 18 points in a half-season, will contribute to what potentially is a high-octane offense.
3. Papillion-La Vista: Another season, another two transfers to bolster coach Jason Ryan’s Monarchs. This time, it’s Nate Maloley and Keenan Nealon coming over from Omaha Westside. They’ll contend for starting spots in a lineup with seniors Brett Dougherty, Spencer Lewis and Bryce Sheard. Lewis takes over for Trey Moore — they were last year’s newcomers — at point guard.
4. Omaha Benson: Bunnies coach Donnie Johnson, who’s 6-foot-7, has a handful of players who can look him in the eye — 6-9 Thik Bol, 6-7 Caleb DeLima, 6-6 Tyrone Clayton and Tyree Peter. Bol is a returning starter, as are 6-5 Deion Wells-Ross, 6-4 Khyri Thomas and sophomore guard Mar’Shun Stewart. Defensive improvement, Johnson said, is a must from last year’s 14-10 team that lost in overtime to Millard North in its district final.
5. Lincoln Southeast: The Knights have the versatility, coach Jeff Smith said, to put a bigger or smaller lineup on the floor. Their three mainstays from last season’s 16-9 team are junior B.J. Day and seniors Jake Nannen and Najee Jackson. Aaron Walker and Luke Gifford are bidding to fill the other two starting spots.
6. Millard North: If coach Chip Bahe’s Mustangs don’t bolt out of the gate, it’s understandable. Returning All-Nebraska first-teamer Josiah Gustafson will miss a few games because of shoulder surgery in the fall and two more returning starters, Nick Marchese and Nick Roth, are coming off the wear-and-tear from an undefeated state championship season in football. Zane Stull, the fourth returning starter, was a 41-percent shooter on 3s.
7. Millard West: It’s the last chance for the Wildcat seniors to leave their mark. “We have a very close group … that has been through a lot together,” coach Bill Morrison said. Connor Lusso, a 6-6 forward, could end up as the school’s career leader in steals, rebounds and possibly points. Spencer Sharp is another 6-6 senior who starts, with senior Josh Lallman a veteran point guard.
8. Omaha Creighton Prep: Four starters return for coach Josh Luedtke’s Junior Jays, including second-team All-Metro guard Kevin Dineen. They’re also likely to start 6-4 freshman Drew Homa at guard. Pat Broderick, Michael Emodi and Alex Allbery are the other holdover starters from last season’s 11-13 team.
9. Bellevue West: Coach Doug Woodard’s Thunderbirds look to rejoin the upper echelon of Class A after three seasons of double-digit losses, but he said it depends on seniors assuming a prime role and “young kids elevating to their upside ability.” Deon Pettigrew, a 6-4 forward, is a third-year starter in a lineup that also returns senior shooter Chris Martin and 6-7 junior Christian Hatterle.
10. Omaha Burke: New coach Ben Holling left the Eagles’ nest at Central to try to restore the Bulldogs’ bite after a 7-17 season. He’s working with three juniors who started last year: Trey Carr, Rashad McCoy and Nick McCulloch. One who could have a fast learning curve is 6-5 freshman Wanjang Tut, who is attracting local D-I interest already. If the program’s transition goes well, Holling said, “we’ll have a chance to be one of the last teams to get a spot in the state tournament.”
Other No. 1 teams
Class B, Scottsbluff: The defending champion Bearcats return guards Eric Moreno, Matt Klein and Michael Hadden. Not much height.
Class C-1, Norfolk Catholic: The Knights return their top three scorers from a state tournament team: Connor Ketter, Riley Knake and Dylan Borer.
Class C-2, Norfolk Lutheran Northeast: Could there be two champion teams in Norfolk? Eagles have a strong senior nucleus. Mitch Knobbe, a 6-4 forward, is coming off major reconstructive surgery.
Class D-1, High Plains: The Storm made state last year with a lineup of three sophomores and a freshman and has picked up two transfers from Hampton.
Class D-2, Giltner: Two all-staters graduated, but the Hornets are athletic enough for a third consecutive title.