The most openly acknowledged, and actively discussed, thing about the boys Class 5A state basketball tournament bracket is that one half of it – the stacked bottom half – is a near bottomless well of contenders.
“No doubt about it,” said Adrian Ortega, coach of the 2018 big-school champion, Atrisco Heritage. “Being on this bottom side of the bracket, you have to be deep to make a run at it.”
The first round of the playoffs begins on Saturday, with 40 games across five classifications.
There are four bona fide challengers for a blue trophy in that remarkable bottom half, led by 28-0 Las Cruces, the stingy No. 2 seed which gives up fewer than 47 points a game.
But this half also includes three District 1 powers: Atrisco Heritage, the 6 seed, plus No. 3 Rio Rancho and No. 7 Cleveland.
“Our district has been playing state games since January,” said Rams coach Wally Salata.
The Bulldawgs open with city rival Oñate, a team Las Cruces has beaten three times, although the last two scores were 74-68 and 50-43.
Rio Rancho, with its best seed since its 2007 championship team, is home to play what Salata described as a “scrappy” Gadsden squad. Atrisco Heritage plays host to Roswell in a game that holds promise of a frenetic pace. Volcano Vista, the deep and versatile No. 1 seed, welcomes No. 16 Carlsbad. All 16 in the field are at least two games over .500.
Cleveland (24-6), which won more games than anyone in 5A except for Las Cruces, plays host to No. 10 La Cueva. The Bears at the metro tournament were close for a half before the Storm pulled away, 79-60.
The best rivalry game in the first round, in any class, is Hobbs-Clovis. Few rivalries in 5A can boast the fevered pitch of this one.
The eighth-seeded Eagles play host to the Wildcats on Saturday. Clovis, the No. 9 seed, beat Hobbs 85-68 at Ralph Tasker Arena last weekend.
“They pushed the ball, made shots – they didn’t miss too many shots,” Hobbs coach Shelby Reeves said. “When you come here to play Hobbs, seems like everyone puts their best foot forward.”
The teams are 2-2 in four previous matchups this season, including one in Gallup.
“We didn’t think that in the seeding we would be playing Clovis again,” Reeves said. “But at the same time, we get another crack at them, and we’re glad to play them again.”
Santa Fe and Albuquerque collide in the 4-13 and 5-12 games. Fourth-seeded Eldorado plays host to No. 13 Capital, and fifth-seeded Santa Fe is home to district rival Manzano. The Monarchs won 44-41 in the Demons’ gym the last time they played there. Santa Fe has taken the last two meetings.
“They’re so aggressive, so scrappy, that controlling the ball will be a huge key for us,” Manzano coach Dominick Romero said. “Turnovers have been a little bit of an issue the last couple of times.”
As for the status of Santa Fe’s outstanding sophomore guard, J.B. White, Demons coach Zack Cole texted “still not sure” when asked about him possibly playing Saturday night after missing the last eight weeks with a knee injury.
No. 1 Los Lunas and No. 2 Hope Christian open the playoffs at home against Artesia and Miyamura, respectively.
The Tigers carry a 15-game win streak into the first round. The Huskies officially open their quest for a seventh straight blue trophy.
“We talk all year long about playing every game as a state championship game,” Hope coach Jim Murphy said. “I know there’s a lot more pressure (now), but we try to downplay it.”
Three metro schools have double-digit seeds – No. 10 Highland (at Valley), No. 12 Del Norte (at Española Valley) and No. 13 Bernalillo (at Gallup).
The Hornets lost both district games to the Vikings.
“They’re more comfortable with the score in the 40s and 50s, and we’re more comfortable in the 60s and 70s,” Highland coach Justin Woody said. “If we can get them sped up a little bit, that will be to our advantage.”
In the middle of the bracket is No. 8 seed Valencia, which plays host to Taos.
Sandia Prep’s big starting lineup is seeded No. 2 in Class 3A behind St. Michael’s, and opens against Cobre.
Bosque School, a 9 seed, visits West Las Vegas. It is the second game in that gym this season for the Bobcats, who lost 70-67 to the Dons on Dec. 6.
“This is a good opportunity for us to show where we belong, obviously,” Bosque coach Clifton Davidson said. “Frankly, I think we should have been ranked higher than we are, but (West) is a good team.”
Junior guard Eli Davidson has averaged 23.5 points and 10 rebounds this season for the Bobcats. Teammate Dante Boeglin, a senior, also averages over 20 points a night.
East Mountain, the 12 seed, lost a close game (60-55) at Cuba a month ago today, and the Timberwolves visit the Rams again on Saturday.
• In 2A, Menaul, a 13 seed and a state finalist last March, visits No. 4 Texico in the first round.