It's not often a basketball coach regrets the need to focus on a league game over a non-conference matchup.
But given the magnitude of Saturday’s game between visiting Toledo Whitmer (11-3) and host Norwalk (14-0), Panthers coach Bruce Smith wishes he had more time to prepare for the Truckers.
“As talented of a team as they are, they require hours of preparation,” Smith said of Norwalk. “But we had a league game Tuesday and have one (tonight at Findlay). They are so good, I’d love to have a week of prep time to play them, but obviously we don’t.
“We have to prioritize a league game before a non-league game unfortunately, and we’re disappointed in that this week. But, that’s the reality of the situation.”
One could hardly blame Smith given the subplots in Saturday’s game.
Whitmer is ranked No. 4 in the latest Division I Associated Press state poll, while Norwalk is right behind at No. 5. It is believed to be the first time that two of the top five teams in the poll in Ohio’s big school division have ever met at an area school.
As if the rankings weren’t enough appeal, the Truckers are 37-1 since the beginning of last season. The lone loss: a 40-32 defeat to the Panthers in a Sweet 16 matchup at the Div. I Toledo regional last March.
Add in what is expected to be a sell-out capacity crowd in excess of 2,300 fans, and it’s hard not to get excited for Saturday’s game.
“I think it’s pretty neat that it is being held at our place, No. 4 vs. 5,” Norwalk coach Steve Gray said. “I would say its the biggest non-league game in the history of Norwalk. I think the fans are in for real treat.”
Whitmer is led by 6-foot-7, 225-pound Nigel Hayes, a forward who is already committed to the University of Wisconsin. Hayes is averaging 17.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.
In a 52-51 loss to rival St. John’s (No. 6, Div. I) Tuesday, Hayes scored 27 points, including all 15 of Whitmer’s fourth quarter points. His last shot rimmed in and out that would have given Whitmer the win in the closing seconds.
“He has it all. His physical size, athleticism … and he’s an outstanding passer,” Gray said of Hayes. “When he gets on one of his rolls offensively, he’s pretty much unstoppable at the high school level.”
Whitmer also boasts Ricardo Smith, who hurt Norwalk for 14 points in the regional game last season. Smith averages 16.3 points per game, while starter Jon Ashe also averages 13 points per game.
“Ricardo is an outstanding 3-point shooter and has the ability to extend defenses,” Gray said. “The problem with Whitmer is, most teams don’t have kids who can guard Nigel one-on-one. You have to be very careful and kind of pick your poison on when to send double teams at him. If you leave someone like Ricardo open, he’ll shoot over 50 percent from the three-point line.
“The thing that makes them so good is they control tempo. There is really nothing you can do to speed them up. They have good enough handlers and passers, you could chase them all night and they don’t care. They take care of ball and are very methodical. They are really good at what they do.”
Meanwhile, Smith took in last week’s Toledo Rogers-Norwalk game, won by the Truckers (70-55).
“We already knew this, but everyone says Ben (Haraway) is what makes them go,” Smith said. “He’s one of them, and is as good of a point guard as we’ll see, and we just saw a great one (St. John's Austin Gardner) Tuesday. But when you look at the stat sheet, there is always a whole bunch of numbers in front of Jeff Thomas’ name.
“(Jake) Fetherolf is a real nice presence for them, but what I was impressed with Saturday was how well (Trey) Hallock and (Grant) Hull played. Hallock barely played the first half with foul trouble, and you look up and he almost has a double-double (9 points, 8 rebounds). We got some guys on our team who will have trouble matching up with them, but I think the same can be said about them defending us in spots. We’re looking forward to it.”
Norwalk travels to Sandusky (3-11, 1-5) tonight for a Northern Ohio League game, a team it beat by 44 points (72-28) after jumping out to a 30-0 lead in the opening 11 minutes in the first meeting on Dec. 14.
The Truckers (6-0 NOL) can essentially wrap up a third straight NOL title with a win tonight. It would own at least a two-game lead with just three league games remaining. Norwalk has never won three straight league titles in its program history.
Should Norwalk finish off the league title like they are expected, it will be the first time in the NOL a team won three consecutive titles since Willard won four straight from 2000-03, and the eighth time a team has won three or more straight titles in the NOL’s 68-year history.
“In our minds, today’s game is bigger than Saturday,” Gray said. “Our No. 1 goal all year is to win an NOL championship. The last thing we want to do is share it with anybody. Sandusky is a team I think is getting better and they will have our full concentration.”
Gray said there has been zero talk this week on avenging the lone loss to Whitmer dating back to last season.
“Not once have we discussed that,” he said. “Our whole thing is getting ready for an outstanding team and using it as a measuring stick to see how we truly stack up in our region. It will allow us to know what we have to do between now and tournament time.
“Win or lose, this will be a great experience for our kids and it’s interesting that Whitmer is taking this game as serious as we are. What a great compliment to our kids that we have the attention of Whitmer and other Division I teams in our region.”