If recent trends are any indication, Center Grove has to feel good about its boys basketball game Jan. 28 at Class 4A No. 1 Carmel.
The series between the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference rivals has been about two-game winning streaks dating back to the 2007-08 season.
Carmel defeated the Trojans two years in a row, with Center Grove returning the favor. Most recently, it’s been the Greyhounds in charge, having won the past two January matchups on their way to consecutive Class 4A state championships.
Not surprisingly, the Trojans have their work cut out attempting to hand Carmel, led by 6-foot-6 senior forward Zach McRoberts and 6-4 junior guard Ryan Cline, its first loss of the season.
So it goes in the MIC, a league in which the phrase “no easy passes” takes on a heightened meaning.
Since the MIC was formed in 1997, its members have won 10 of the 16 Class 4A state titles and picked up three runner-up trophies. Six programs have sampled at least a share of conference supremacy in that time, with Lawrence North leading the way with eight.
Center Grove’s warmest moments in the MIC sun came in the 2009-10 season, when the Trojans claimed the championship outright, and three years earlier when Center Grove shared the top spot with Warren Central.
“I think the MIC represents the highest challenge, and I’m always motivated by it,” 10th-year Trojans coach Cliff Hawkins said. “Sure, it’s rough. But to be in a conference with coaches who are not only some of the best in Indiana but in the history of Indiana high school basketball is special.”
Three of the state’s four active winningest coaches have MIC ties — Cloverdale’s Pat Rady (formerly at Terre Haute South), Springs Valley’s Jim Jones (Terre Haute South) and 38th-year Lawrence North coach Jack Keefer.
Further down the list are Ben Davis coach Mark James (11th), Center Grove’s Hawkins (17th), North Central’s Doug Mitchell (28th), Pike’s Bill Zych (31st) and Carmel’s Scott Heady (44th).
The Greyhounds have a 3-0 MIC record this season. The Trojans are 0-1 after being crushed at home by Pike, 74-50, on Dec. 13.
Center Grove bounced back nicely with three straight victories but came up winless last weekend against Perry Meridian and Cathedral to stand 6-4 overall.
Hawkins, who is 4-5 against Carmel and 1-3 on the Greyhounds’ court (the win being a 60-40 decision in January 2010), knows playing the reigning state champions in their building is among Center Grove’s toughest tests.
“There’s just a lot of things going for Carmel, and one is the basketball intellect that carries through,” Hawkins said. “They have very good basketball players and a great ability to move the ball in their half-court offense.
“Basically, it’s about being able to set effective screens and our ability to defend their screens, and Carmel is a very good screening team.”
Hawkins also notes a need for Center Grove to improve its offensive rebounding after securing a total of nine in the two losses last weekend.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature removed a major portion of the practice time the coaching staff would have devoted to that area. With Center Grove out of school Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, preparation for tonight’s game was condensed.
Heady faces the same challenge. Carmel, too, was out of school for three days due to the heavy snowfall.
The seemingly endless wingspan of the 190-pound McRoberts has disrupted many a would-be offensive flow the past three seasons with deflections, blocks and altered interior passes.
This is but one of the many challenges facing the Trojans, as they attempt to get leading scorers Michael Benkert (21.4 ppg) and Tyler Bryant (19.0) untracked. Junior point guard Joey Lenkey averages 7.5 points a game to go with his 3.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists.