In a year of change for the WIAA state boys basketball tournament, there still are plenty of familiar faces headed to the Kohl Center this week.
Yes, the 95th annual tournament will look a little different.
For starters, the event is the week ahead of the state girls championships for just the second time. And the WIAA has changed the order of the games, with the Division 3 and 4 semifinals changing places and the Division 2 and 3 finals swapping spots.
Defending champion Madison Memorial is the only one of the eight Division 1 teams that played at state last year. The third-ranked Spartans (21-4) are looking to become the first team since Oshkosh West in 2006 and '07 to repeat as state champions.
"When I look at this bracket, this is probably the most open this thing has been in a really long time," said Memorial coach Steve Collins, who is 228-59 in 12 seasons. "I could see any of the eight teams in the finals."
The Spartans have veteran senior guards in Marquette recruit Vander Blue (17.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3 apg) and Tre Creamer (14.5 ppg), who will play in their third state tournaments, and have another backcourt standout in sophomore Junior Lomomba (10.5 ppg) as they head into their seventh straight state appearance - three shy of Superior Central's record of 10 in a row (1917-26).
Memorial, which also won the 2005 title and lost in the finals in 2004, '06 and '08, opens against Neenah (17-9) in the second quarterfinal Thursday afternoon.
It's the 25th state berth for the Rockets, tied for third in WIAA history, but their first since 2000. Guard Patrick Follen (12 ppg) and forward Josh Hopfensberger (11 ppg) are the top scorers for a balanced Neenah team.
Tom Diener is back at state, too, this time with Milwaukee Hamilton (20-3).
Diener, who led Milwaukee Vincent to a 313-60 record, five state titles and two state runner-up finishes in 15 seasons, has a talented junior-laden team in his second season with the fourth-ranked Wildcats.
Six-foot-6 forward Elgin Cook (15 ppg, 9 ppg), who has verbally committed to Iowa State; 6-8 forward Darnell Harris (14 ppg, 8 rpg); and point guard Charles Lee (12 ppg) lead the way for Hamilton, making its fourth state trip and first since 1992.
"I think our kids are a year older, a little bit more mature," said Diener, whose team's losses have come to Wheeler (Ga.), Cedar Hill (Texas) and Milwaukee King. "We were really young last year ... We're a little older this year, a little wiser."
The Wildcats come in on a roll, having hammered Racine Park 88-66 in a sectional final. The Panthers were 25-0 on the court, but forfeited 10 games for athletic code violations.
"If Hamilton plays like they did tonight, I don't see anyone beating them," Park coach Jim Betker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Fittingly, Milwaukee Marquette (18-8) drew the quarterfinal against Hamilton at 6:35 p.m. Thursday. The Hilltoppers beat four other Milwaukee City Conference teams in their playoff run, including a stunning 80-47 rout of King in the sectional final.
Forward John Kopriva (12 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.8 bpg) and guard Quinten Calloway (10.9 ppg, 5 apg) have played key roles for Marquette, which started 2-5 but is now looking to win the title in its WIAA state debut - 35 teams have accomplished the feat.
Second-ranked Antigo (24-0), three years removed from a 1-20 season, earned its 13th state berth after a 15-year absence.
As fate would have it, the Red Robins drew Appleton East as their quarterfinal foe at 1:35 p.m. Thursday. In 1995, the Patriots beat Antigo in the same round. Adding to the storyline, the Red Robins' coach then was John Mielke, now in his 10th season at East.
Antigo, shooting to join 41 previous teams as unbeaten state champs, has one of the state's leading scorers in 6-3 senior guard Jordan Mach (29.6 ppg).
"I think he will be the best player we will have faced," Mielke said of Mach, headed to NCAA Division II UW-Parkside. "We're really going to have our work cut out for us."
The Patriots (21-5), meanwhile, don't have such a standout - five players average 7 points or better - but have won 11 in a row, including a 42-40 victory over top-ranked De Pere in a sectional final.
While several of the state's top big men saw their teams stopped short of state, the same wasn't true for Ben Mills and Hartland Arrowhead.
The 7-foot-1 senior center, a Boise State recruit, averages 17.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2 blocked shots per game for the No. 9 Warhawks (22-3).
"He's had a very, very good year for us and there's no question that he's the biggest - no pun intended - reason why we're down at the state tournament," said Arrowhead coach Craig Haase, whose team lost to Division 2 semifinalist Waukesha Catholic Memorial twice and suffered its other loss to 2009 state champion Wisconsin Lutheran.
Verona (18-7) has the tall task of matching up against Mills in Thursday's late quarterfinal. Senior forwards Sam Karls (13.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Adam Wadzinski (8.2 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.5 spg) lead the Wildcats, who tied for third behind co-champions Memorial and Madison East in the Big Eight Conference.
The Fox Valley Association also has two teams in the field in Neenah and Appleton East; teams from the Big Eight, FVA and Milwaukee City have won 17 of the past 20 titles.
Maple Northwestern surprised many just by making finals
Ninth-ranked Maple Northwestern (23-4) is the only team back in the field, having been bolstered by the return of senior Steve Tecker.
A 6-5 guard headed to South Dakota, Tecker was expected to miss the season after having surgery on both hips in December, but was cleared to play in the postseason.
Tecker, who averaged 21.1 points and 6.6 rebounds last season, forms a solid 1-2 punch with 6-8 forward Donnie Hissa, a Notre Dame baseball recruit who leads the Tigers in scoring (14.8), rebounding (12.4), assists (3.7) and blocked shots (2.5).
Northwestern plays Kiel (19-6) and senior guard Brandon Gries (24.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3 apg) in Friday afternoon's second semifinal. The Raiders' only other berth was in 1974.
Top-ranked Waukesha Catholic Memorial (25-2) has standout senior guards in T.J. Bray (17.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 7.2 apg), a Princeton recruit, and Derek Schell (17.8 ppg, 4.8 apg), and knocked off No. 2 Wisconsin Lutheran 57-50 in the sectional semifinals.
The Crusaders, who won the title in 2004 in their only other WIAA state appearance, put their 19-game winning streak on the line against Sauk Prairie (21-6) at 1:35 p.m. Friday. Senior forwards Matt Rudig (14.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Sam Koenig (10.2 ppg) lead the Eagles, who have won 14 straight and also advanced to state in 1996 and '97.
Racine St. Catherine's to defend title
Defending champion Racine St. Catherine's headlines the bracket - senior guard Steve McWhorter (14.8 ppg, 5.2 apg, 3 spg), an Indiana State recruit, and the No. 4 Angels (23-4) have never lost a WIAA state game, winning titles in 2005, '06, '07 and '09.
Conversely, their opponent in Friday's 9:05 a.m. semifinal, Blair-Taylor, has never won a game at state, losing in the semifinals in each of its first five appearances. Senior guard Cody Cartrette (15.5 ppg), junior center Lucas Howe (15.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and junior guard Hank Kujak (13.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 6 apg) pace the Wildcats (24-3), who have won 12 in a row after moving up from Division 4.
Either Brillion or Eau Claire Regis will celebrate its first WIAA state victory in Friday's second semifinal. Brillion (23-4) avenged two losses to No. 6 Manitowoc Roncalli with a victory in the regional finals, then upset No. 1 Marathon 66-63 in the sectional final to earn its first state appearance - the Lions don't have any players who average in double figures, but have eight players who score 5 points or better.
Senior forward Adam Ganske (14.5 ppg), junior guard Connor Miller (13.7 ppg, 3 apg) and senior guard Jack Eaton (13.3 ppg) pace the Ramblers (22-5) in their third state berth.
Opening game pits new and old
The tournament's first game, at 9:05 a.m. Thursday, pits old against new.
Top-ranked Randolph (27-0) makes its 13th state appearance as the favorite to win its eighth state title - the Rockets are tied with Beloit Memorial with a record seven championships (1996, '98, 2002, '03, '04, '05 and '07). Kyle Kelm, a 6-10 senior center and UW-Milwaukee recruit, averages 19.6 ppg and 7 rpg for Randolph.
On the other side of the court will be newcomer Royall (20-7). Senior guard Cory Witt (14.4 ppg) leads the Panthers, who play in the Scenic Bluffs Conference - the most recent state appearance by any of the league's eight teams was Bangor in 1936.
There will be another first-time state winner in the second semifinal, when junior guard Tyler Ketz (17.7 ppg) and senior center-forward Taylor Dayton (14.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg) lead No. 4 Clayton (25-1) against WIAA state debutant Green Bay NEW Lutheran (17-10).
The Bears, who lost in the semifinals in 2000 and 2002, won their first 16 games before a 54-49 loss to St. Croix Falls and have won nine in a row since. Junior guards Aaron Gosse (14.7 ppg) and Kaylor Zimmerman (14.6 ppg, 5.2 apg) lead the Blazers, who started 2-7 but are on an 11-game winning streak.