Little has separated teams in the 4A Southern Idaho Conference the past two years.
In 2014-15, three different teams won the regular-season title, the district title and reached the state championship. Last year, all six teams finished within two games of each other in the final conference standings.
The league is set up for another yearlong battle.
Bishop Kelly, which has finished second at state two years in a row, starts the season as the favorite with a bevy of guards perfect for its high-pressure game returning. But the league expands to eight teams this year, adding new obstacles, including a Vallivue squad ready to challenge the Knights right away.
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The two meet for the first time at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Bishop Kelly with the Knights No. 1 in the first state media poll of the year, while Vallivue is No. 2.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Max Rice, jr., G, Bishop Kelly
The 6-4 guard comes off a year that saw him earn first-team all-conference and All-Idaho honors as a sophomore. Primarily a shooter as a freshman, he added a knack to get to the hoop, a midrange game and a nose for rebounds to lead the Knights’ last year in scoring (13.3 ppg) and rebounds (5.4).
The second of Boise State coach Leon Rice’s three sons can still heat up behind the 3-point line. But the rest of the conference is now left devising ways to contain an all-around threat for the next two years.
“Max is a pure shooter with a high basketball IQ, great vision and is a team player,” Caldwell coach Trent Harrison said. “Look for him to have a breakout year where he really separates himself from the pack.”
BISHOP KELLY KNIGHTS
Coach: Ryan Kerns, third season
Last year: 16-6, 6-4 4A SIC
Returning starters: Dan Sabala, sr., PG; Max Rice, jr., G; Bronson King, sr., G
Outlook: The Knights return the bulk of the lineup that led BK to a district title and a state runner-up finish last season. The guard-heavy lineup, which also returns sixth man Jacob Russell, will continue to pressure and wear down opponents with its pace in the fullcourt. Opponents will need to protect the ball and work it down into the post to avoid getting drawn into a shootout with a team full of deadeye shooters.
Coach: Trent Harrison, second season
Last year: 14-14, 4-6 4A SIC
Returning starters: Corbin Beets, sr., G/F
Outlook: The Cougars made history last season, qualifying for state for the first time since 1999 and the third time in 29 years. But Caldwell lost 10 of its top 12 players from that team, including second-team All-Idaho pick George Tarlas to Borah. While inexperienced, Harrison said the Cougars are fast, will ratchet up the pressure and can shoot the 3.
Coach: Dave Dust, first season
Last year: 14-11, 8-2 3A SRV
Returning starters: DJ Crump, jr., G; Luc Overton, sr., P
Outlook: The Huskies return to 4A after winning the 3A SRV district title last season, their first district championship since 2002. The Huskies return their top two scorers in Crump (12.6 ppg) and Overton (11.2 ppg, 6.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists) to a lineup loaded with speed but little size. Dust, a former Boise State player, said point guard Max Gleim is a potential breakout player.
Coach: Alex Maxwell, first season
Last year: 11-15, 6-4 4A SIC
Returning starters: Ethan McPherson, sr., PG; David Kofoed, sr., G; Tyler Wilson, sr., F; Reece Robinett, sr., F
Outlook: Maxwell joins the Vikings’ boys program after assisting the school’s powerhouse girls teams the past eight years. He inherits an experienced and physical squad that will pose matchup problems in the paint around the conference. If the backcourt can hit enough perimeter shots to keep opponents from clogging the lane, Middleton will contend for its second district title in three years.
MOUNTAIN HOME TIGERS
Coach: Brion Bethel, fifth season
Last year: 12-11, 4-6 5A SIC
Returning starters: AJ Woodruff, sr., G; Marcus Egusquiza, sr., W; Chris Wright, sr., G
Outlook: The Tigers field the most experienced team in the conference with three guards entering their fourth year on varsity — Woodruff, Wright and Brion Bethel Jr., who is recovering from a dislocated shoulder. Egusquiza is also entering his third year on varsity. Bethel said this is Mountain Home’s most athletic squad in years, but it will have to stay under control and limit turnovers.
Coach: Neil Stutzman, first season
Last year: 0-0
Returning starters: None
Outlook: Stutzman moves over to the new school in the Vallivue School District after leading the Vallivue girls to a 15-52 record the past three years. He said the Warhawks feature impressive length, as well as quickness in the backcourt. But the roster has next to no experience at the varsity level, so Stutzman sees Year 1 as a building block for the program.
Coach: Aaron Sanders, eighth season
Last year: 12-12, 5-5 4A SIC
Returning starters: Kyle Pierce, sr., F; Cayden Wright, jr., G; Jayson Hibbard, jr., F
Outlook: After qualifying for state 10 years in a row, the Hawks missed out the past two years. But a young, inexperienced lineup last season has turned into a veteran group this winter with 10 returning varsity members. Sanders said that experience and depth in the front and backcourts should shore up the inconsistent scoring that plagued Skyview last season.
Coach: Ryan Lundgren, second season
Last year: 11-13, 7-9 5A SIC
Returning starters: Tyas Kitchen, sr., F; Landon Cain, sr., F; Hunter Sedillo, sr., C
Outlook: The Falcons drop down to 4A poised for their first winning season and state tournament berth since 2009-10. Vallivue returns its entire frontcourt, including leading scorer Kitchen (11.1 ppg). And it adds Melba transfer Nick Fitts, a deadly shooter who scored 23.4 ppg last year to earn first-team 2A All-Idaho honors. The Falcons’ largest improvement under Lundgren lies on defense, where they dropped their opponents’ scoring average by 10.2 points last year to 50.4. Expect it to drop even further during a second year under the former Boise State assistant.
4A SIC preseason coaches’ poll
Team (1st-place votes)
1. Bishop Kelly (5)
2. Vallivue (2)
3. Middleton (1)
t-5. Mountain Home