Just after his Park High School boys basketball team was awarded a WIAA Division 1 regional championship plaque last Saturday afternoon, coach Jim Betker went off the record.
Looking to that night’s other regional championship in Park’s bracket between Milwaukee Marquette and Franklin, Betker confided that he believed Marquette would be the favorite.
It was an intriguing comment to make considering Franklin had swept Park in two Southeast Conference games by an average margin of 17 points, featured an All-State candidate in forward Max Alba and was the third-ranked Division 1 team in the final Associated Press poll.
And Marquette? The Hilltoppers entered last Saturday’s game with a 12-11 record.
But Betker proved to be right when Marquette pulled off a 64-49 victory. And now Park must handle Marquette Thursday in a 7 p.m. sectional semifinal at Milwaukee South in its quest for its first state tournament berth since 1960.
What did Betker see in Marquette last Saturday?
“That’s probably one of the toughest conferences in the state that they’re coming out of,” said Betker, referring to the Greater Metro Conference. “You’re playing the Brookfield schools night in and night out. Top to bottom, I think it’s one of the toughest conferences in the state.”
So even though Park is 20-4 and finished seventh among Division 1 schools in the AP poll, Marquette almost certainly will give the Panthers all they can handle. That was how it played out March 10, 2016, when Marquette defeated Park 67-62 in a sectional semifinal at Case on a night the Panthers went just 9 for 25 from the free-throw line.
The Hilltoppers went on to the state tournament that season, losing to Muskego 62-54 in a semifinal.
Marquette, which is just 3-4 since Feb. 6, has nevertheless shown plenty to concern Betker when he scouted the Hilltoppers. The Hilltoppers run a slow-placed deliberate offense run by 5-foot-9 senior guard Mikey Garven, who averages 5.4 points 3.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game per game, and they also have size.
“They’re patient and they’re going to get the shot they want to take,” Betker said. “We’re a team that wants to get up and down more and Marquette is a team that wants to be more deliberate and wait for the exact shot they want to take. So it’s going to be important for us to be patient on defense.”
Garven has several sound options when he sets up Marquette’s offense.
Niko Kerschner, a 6-6 senior forward, averages a team-high 14.2 points and shoots 54 percent from the floor. He also averages a team-high 6.9 rebounds.
Joey Platz, a 6-3 junior guard, averages 11.5 points. Other key players include 6-7 senior forward Liam Schroeder (9.3 points, 4.6 rebounds) and 6-0 junior guard Jimmy Ubert (7.8 points).
Park will have some familiarity with Marquette considering starters Rance Kendrick and Nobal Days and Larry Canady each saw ample playing time in the 2016 sectional semifinal.
Each will figure prominently in how the Panthers fare Thursday. Canady, a 6-2 junior guard who averages a team-high 16.9 points per game, has 1,001 points in his three years as a starter. Kendrick (11.3 points, 4.4 assists), a 6-1 point guard, is Park’s only senior starter and its leader.
And then there’s the 6-9 Days, a junior who already has been offered scholarships from almost a dozen Division 1 schools, including Wisconsin and Marquette. While Days is usually not the focal point offensively (6.8 points per game), he is a game-changer as a rebounder (12.4), playmaker (5.2 assists) and shot blocker (3.5).
Add to that core players who include 6-3 sophomore Jalawn Farrell (9.3 points), 6-0 junior Zyiere Carey (8.2) and 6-5 junior Richie Warren (7.0 points, 4.6 rebounds), and the Panthers are loaded with talent.
Betker needs all of his players to be at their best Thursday for a potential sectional championship showdown against either Brookfield East (22-2) or West Allis Central (16-8) Saturday.
“It’ll be a tough game for us,” Betker said of Marquette. “We’re going to have to play at a high level and we have to play our best basketball to get through Thursday.”