While they are seeded third at the 32nd annual Nashville Invitational Tournament, the Mater Dei Knights might be the hottest team in an extremely balanced field.
Mater Dei (12-6) has won five straight and is 8-1 in its last nine games, with victories over 2A state-ranked Nashville (51-38), 1A-state ranked Gibault (70-63 in overtime) and 1A state-ranked Madison (59-49).
"We've played some good basketball the last five games, but by no means do we think we're sitting on top of the world," Mater Dei coach Ron Schadegg said. "We're still humble and still hungry. We've got a lot of respect for everybody in the tournament and understand that anybody can beat anybody on a given night."
Gibault (13-3) is the No. 1 seed and defending tourney champ Teutopolis (10-4) is seeded second ahead of No. 3 Mater Dei. Teutopolis beat No. 4 seed Central on a late 3-pointer earlier this season, but also has recent losses to Highland (61-55) and Mattoon (72-57).
"From top to bottom there's not a whole lot of difference between one and eight, at least on paper," said Nashville coach Brad Weathers, whose team opens tourney play with a tough matchup against Central at 8 p.m. Tuesday. "In years past there was always a clear cut No. 1 or No. 2 or maybe a clear cut No. 7 or No. 8. Not this year."
Gibault coach Dennis Rueter agreed.
"It's probably more balanced than maybe it's ever been," said Rueter, whose team hasn't hoisted the Nashville tourney championship trophy since a run of three straight titles from 1991-93. "I don't know if it's as good as it's ever been, but there's probably more teams that think they can win it."
While not as strong as last season, when it ended Central's run of four straight NIT titles, Teutopolis remains a tough opponent.
Gibault is coming off a 59-50 loss to 3A-ranked Althoff and has a recent overtime loss to Mater Dei.
The Hawks' offense continues to revolve around seniors Wes Degener (17.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game), Nick row (15.8 ppg) and Mitch Meyer (9.9 ppg).
"We're just so small, we have to play with so much energy every night that it's really difficult for us," Rueter said.
Mater Dei's combination of dominant size and accurate outside shooting continues to causes problems. Sophomore point guard Brendan Timmermann is also making strides, according to Schadegg.
The Knights have five players averaging more than seven points led by 6-4 junior Ben Lampe (12.8 ppg), 6-8 junior Nolan Gerling (9.6 ppg), 6-4 junior Zach Haake (8.9 ppg), 6-5 senior Eric Vandeloo (7.9 ppg) and 6-2 junior Zach Deiters (7.8 ppg).
"By focusing more on our interior scoring, that's allowed us to have a little more space on the perimeter to shoot and we've had a lot of success at it recently," Schadegg said.
Central (11-4) has won five straight and the Cougars continue to add scoring and depth around talented senior guard Jacob Timmermann (16 ppg). Sophomore Logan Kohrmann (14.3 ppg, 22 3-pointers) is a legitimate threat.
"Jacob Timmermann's one of the premier guards in this half of the state," Weathers said. "The Kohrmann kid has had big games and others on their team have had some nice games, too."
That praise didn't faze Central coach Jeremy Shubert.
"We've got Nashville on their home floor and that's going to be a challenge," Shubert said. "Their length in that 1-2-2 zone really causes trouble. I'm looking for my younger kids to play with a little bit more enthusiasm and energy and confidence."
Nashville has won its own tourney only once (2007) since 2000, but the Hornets have as good a shot as anyone.
The Hornets' size figures to bother Central a lot led by 6-foot-7 sophomore Royce Newman (15.4 ppg) and 6-6 Clint Johannes (7.7 ppg). Daniel Thorson and Keegan Anderson are also just under 8 points per game.
Freeburg (9-6) is 4-1 in Cahokia Conference-Mississippi Division play. The Midgets have won five straight, including a 43-34 conference win over Carlyle on Friday.
Six-foot-nine Kennesaw State recruit Justin Diecker provides 18.9 points and 12 rebounds for Freeburg with 40 blocked shots. Jacob Mueller adds 13.2 points per game.
Wesclin (5-10) is mired in a six-game losing streak, but the Warriors can catch fire from 3-point range and are more than capable of an upset.
However, Wesclin's first-round opponent is Mater Dei and the Knights hammered the Warriors 81-61 Jan. 11 at the Highland Shootout.
Wesclin's top scorers are Alex Smith (15.3 ppg), Kyle Eversgerd (13.3 ppg) and Jarad Steenbergen (12.7 ppg, 39 3-pointers).
Mascoutah has lost seven of its last eight games headed into its tourney opener against top-seeded Gibault. The Indians' top scorers are junior Tim Parks (13.1 ppg) and senior Alex Oltmann (10.6 ppg).