By Ryan Divish
If you want the Class B boys state basketball title, you'll have to take it. You'll have to fight, scrap and hustle because the Harlem Wildcats are prepared to do the same because they don't plan on giving their title away.
The defending Class B champion Wildcats begin the formidable task of repeating as state champs against a formidable opponent in the Manhattan Tigers today in opening round action at the Class B State tournament in Butte.
It's been less than a week since Harlem tasted its first defeat in 19 games. Needless to say, the Cats would like nothing better than to rid that sour taste of defeat with a win over the undefeated Tigers.
"Manhattan has a really good team," said head coach Kyle Bigby. "They are really fundamentally sound and don't make very many mistakes."
While most people feel that this opening round game will be a clash of two of the best teams in tournament, it will also be a clash of styles of play.
The Tigers play a deliberate style that takes plenty of time off the clock and is designed to get top scorers David Burdett and Landon Oldenburger the ball.
Conversely, Harlem wants the tempo to resemble organized chaos at high speed. The Wildcats want to press teams for all 32 minutes and force them into turnovers which triggers their transition game. With five players capable of leading them in scoring on any given night, the Wildcats are less concerned about who is shooting, just as long as they are getting plenty of shots and they are going in.
It all seems good in theory, but last weekend at the North-East B divisional, the theory broke down.
The Wildcats shot just over 30 percent in each of their three games and at times didn't look like they could throw it in the ocean. Besides his team's shooting woes, Bigby wasn't pleased with the pace of play.
"Last week we played to other teams' tempo," Bigby said. "We didn't play our style of basketball in any of the three games. When we do, teams can't handle our defensive pressure."
For Harlem to get in their trademark pressure, the Wildcats must hit shots from the outside with some sort of consistency which allows them to set up their full-court pressure.
"We told them to stop worrying about whether their shots go in," Bigby said. "We just want them to shoot it and not hesitate. They'll start going in eventually."
Although Manhattan would prefer not to play at Harlem's pace, they do have players that can handle the pressure.
Both Burdett and Oldenburger are solid players that can cause problems for Harlem.
Burdett averages 17 points, six assists and five rebounds per game. For the past three years, he has been one of Manhattan's most consistent threats. But it's Oldenburger, who averages 12 points per game and is deadly from outside, that has Bigby concerned.
"He's the real deal," Bigby said. "He can play all over the place and is dangerous."
The Tigers also get solid contributions from Steve Porter, Zeb Miller and Brenden Robinson.
One thing that Bigby is certain, he will have the more experienced team when play begins today. All five of his starters - Chris Cole, Colby Fetter, Ben Carrywater, Hank Brockie and Jim Kennedy - played significantly during last year's championship run and will be playing in their fourth straight state tournament.
"The state tournament is a whole different level of pressure," Bigby said. "My guys are very used to it, but if you aren't used to it, that pressure can get to you a little. With 5,000 people watching and everything on the line teams can get a little tight."
Cole has led Harlem in scoring for much of the season and has a knack for making big shots in big games as evidenced by last year's tournament. Fetter is a battle tested point guard, who doesn't make many mistakes. Both Carrywater and Brockie bring versatility and explosiveness especially on the offensive boards. Kennedy will never be confused for a true post player but his range and footwork cause problems for bigger defenders.
Both Harlem and Cut Bank are considered to be favorites in the tournament because of the tough competition played in the North-East B. But Bigby isn't about to start talking about a sweet repeat.
"We're taking baby steps," Bigby said. "We're worrying about Manhattan first. But the goal all year long was to be playing on Saturday night at the state tournament. I feel pretty confident that if we play the way we are capable of, we will be there Saturday night."