It was perhaps the greatest three-year run in boys' 16th region basketball history. Beginning in 2006, Elliott County captured the hearts of high school fans throughout Kentucky with 83 wins and a regional championship three-peat. Last season, the Lions earned a school-record 32 wins while advancing to the final four of the state tournament. It was a period of basketball success that may never again be equalled in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. For folks in the tiny town of Sandy Hook, it was simply as good as it gets.
But gone are school boy legends and identical twins Ethan and Evan Faulkner. Also graduating was sharpshooting guard Jonathan Ferguson--one of the most prolific scorers in Kentucky prep history. Which means for the first time in fours, Elliott County will not be the overwhelming favorite to win the 16th region title.
However, the cupboard is certainly not bare for first-year coach Greg Adkins, who in the off-season, suceeded long-time and recently retired coach Rick Mays. Elliott is among a host of teams with a legitimate shot of making it to Rupp Arena. Here's a preview of the top 10 teams and players the 16th region has to offer:
1. Fairview. Derek Cooksey, the 28-year-old son of former Eagle coach Rex Cooksey, inherits a team loaded with talent and experience. Caleb Collins, Brent Jackson and Rose Hill transfer Michael Terry are among the region's best players. Fairvew should boast its first 20-win season since 2006.
2. East Carter. Brandon Baker was one of the Raiders all-time best players, now he'll try to get the prgram back to the Sweet 16 as the head coach. East pushed champion Elliott County to the limit the last two seasons, losing in the region finals in 2008 and then by only five points in the district tournament this past March. Colt Barnhill and Kyle Bair give Baker two of the region's most talented players.
3. Elliott County. Regional titles have fast become the norm in Sandy Hook. And although it won't be as easy this time around, you can't eliminate the Lions from the converstion. Timmy Knipp (6'7") and Jacob Ison (6'5") give Elliott two of the best big men in the region. The Lions have four straight 20-plus win seasons. And they expect another.
4. Ashland. The Tomcats are always in the conversation. However, Ashland won its last reginal title in 2002 and haven't played in the big game in three years. Coach Buddy Biggs returns four starters from last year's 17-win campaign. With Elliott finally becoming a mortal team again, it gives the 'Cats as good a shot as anybody.
5. Menifee County. It's not often that you find the Wildcats in the pre-season top five, but there's good reason for it this year. Blake Greene and Pete Greene will make Menifee a contender. The Cats should be the best team in a very competitive 61st district.
6. Greenup County. Second-year coach Tim Fraley has one of the region's biggest teams with four players measuring 6'5" or bigger. The Musketeers should also be one of the area's best defensive squads. Greenup is seeking its first winning season in three years.
7. Rowan County. The Vikings may be a far cry from the 2005 regional championship team, but there's enough talent in Morehead to make things interesting. Brothers Corey and Cody Hunter (6'6" and
6'3", respectively), give coach Shawn Thacker some size underneath the basket. Danny Weigel and Jacob Ginter will carry the ball-handling and shooting load. Football standout Darrell Cross offers the Vikings quickness and athleticism.
8. Morgan County. The Cougars may be the most underrated team in the region. Few of the 'so-called' experts are giving Morgan the time of day. But coach Matthew Perry returns seniors Tanner Roy and Mikie Fyffe along with a talented junior class. Morgan could make a return trip to the regional tournament for the first time since joining the 62nd district.
9. Russell. The last two seasons have been torture for the Red Devils, losing a combined 50 games. But the upset of heavily-favored Greenup County in the 63rd district tournament gave new life to a struggling program. Look for coach Merle Kidwell's team to make a return trip to the regional tourney.
10. West Carter. The Comets reached the 20-win plateau last season for the first time under coach Jeremy Webb. West lost much of its talent to graduation, but returns size with Justin Jarrell and Aaron Rayburn. Also look for freshman Kyle Brown, the son of legendary Lady Comet coach, the late John "Hop" Brown, to give West immediate scoring and leadership.
1. Timmy Knipp, Elliott County. The 6'7" junior has played in the shadows of the Faulkner twins and Ferguson for the last three years. The Lions are now 'his' team. Improved his work ethic during AAU ball over the summer. Has the potential to be one of the top players in the state.
2. Colt Barnhill, East Carter. The Raiders big man is experienced, talented and tough under the basket. Will pose a matchup problem for anyone in the region.
3. Caleb Collins, Fairview. The 6'2" senior earned all-area honors as a junior, averaging 20 points and five rebounds per game. Collins will undoubtedly be the Eagles' go-to guy in late-game situations. Taking opponents off the dribble and knocking down the mid-range jumper is his specialty.
4. Taylor Baze, Bath County. Is one of the best players to come through the Wildcat program in years. The talented guard can distribute the basketball and score. Is Bath County's 'Mr. Everthing'.
5. Will Skaggs, Ashland. Certainly among the best point guards in the region. Already owns the school's single-game assist record with 19 last season against rival Boyd County. Will be asked to carry a bit more of the scoring load this year.
6. Michael Terry, Fairview. The 6'6" forward averaged 15 points per game as a freshman last season at Rose Hill. Is one of the area's most versatile players.
7. Tanner Roy, Morgan County. In a region stocked with quality point guards, he's among the best of the bunch. Like his team, Roy will get minimal attention from the experts, but has the leadership and skills to lead Morgan to a second straight winning season.
8. Brent Jackson, Fairview. Yet another reason that Fairview is the pre-season favorite to win the region. The 6'5" senior is one of the area's best post players, averaging 19 points and nine rebounds last season.
9. Kyle Bair, East Carter. He's the steadying force in the Raiders push for a region crown. Started at point the last years, but will play either the 2 or 3 this season. The 6'2" senior can score from the perimeter or off the dribble.
10. Mikie Fyffe, Morgan County. Can score with anyone in the region. Averaged 14 points per game as a junior on a bad left leg. Has the skills to create off the dribble and knock down the mid-range jumper. Not afraid to carry the scoring load for the Cougars.
The Best of the Rest: Aaron Rayburn (West Carter), Blake Greene (Menifee County), Adam Wing (Rowan County), Terrance Smith (Lewis County) and Corey Gregg (Ashland).