By Angel Verdejo and Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
Unlike their female counterparts, boys basketball in District 12-5A doesn't have an undefeated team.
There isn't a dominant squad sitting near the top of the state rankings or another that came into the season off its best year ever.
But despite all that, 2011-12 may be one of the better district competitions in recent history.
"Every night you have to show up and play," said Copperas Cove head coach Billy White, whose Bulldawgs have one postseason appearance since 1998 but could become a factor in this season's playoff race. "You don't want to go and see blowout games. You want to see good, intense games all the way until the end.
"That's why January and February are going to be good months for basketball."
There are still favorites, but no one seems to be head-and-shoulders above the rest.
Ellison (9-7, 1-0) has reached the playoffs 17 years in a row, but lost 11 players from its 12-member varsity roster last season. Defending champion Harker Heights (11-5, 0-1) is still looking for this year's Royce O'Neale (who's already seeing playing time at the University of Denver), a go-to player that can take over a game when needed.
Bryan, a perennial contender, continues to struggle without all-state guard J-Mychal Reese. The Texas A&M signee hasn't played yet this season while recovering from knee surgery and the Vikings are just 1-8 and dropped its 12-5A opener to rival A&M Consolidated.
The Tigers (13-2, 1-0) may be the closest thing to a favorite in 12-5A, but how will they handle being a frontrunner after finishing fourth a year ago? That means this season could be the time for teams like Cove (8-6, 0-1), Temple (8-5, 1-0) Shoemaker (12-3, 1-0).
"I'd rather have the five best players in district and walk out there and dominate," Shoemaker head coach Marc Minatrea joked. "But it's fun. To me, it's no different than any other year.
"I'm just excited about our team having a better chance to be in the district race than in years past."
How teams handle their early success and how it carries over will also determine the playoff picture.
"For years past, Copperas Cove has kind of been the whipping boy," White said. "Now, it's a situation where we're right there to make a lot of noise in the district. We just have to make sure we show up and play every night."
Players to watch
Alex Caruso, A&M Consolidated - Coming on the last two seasons, the sharpshooting Caruso has transformed into a dynamic all-around scorer, and it's paying off for the Texas A&M signee and the Tigers, who rolled over Bryan 80-33 last week.
Thomas Cherry, Harker Heights - In his third year on varsity, the senior point guard has become a steadying force for the defending district champion Knights, who are still trying to find their identity following a district-opening upset by Temple.
Malik Hawkins, Ellison - Known as simply a shooter on JV last year, Hawkins has emerged as versatile scorer who can hit from anywhere on the court, draining 3-pointers with ease and helping spark an Eagles offense that returns just one varsity starter from a year ago.
Rashard Odomes, Copperas Cove - Already being called a "freshman sensation," the little brother of former Bulldawgs standout Raheem Odomes is a basketball phenom, able to do everything on the court and do it well, to go along with an ability to score 40 points on any given night.
Avery Polchinski, Temple - More of a pull-up jump shooter, Polchinski could be the reason Temple makes a postseason charge, steadying the Wildcats with his ability to score both inside and out and play sound defense.
J-Mychal Reese, Bryan - The sensational Aggie-signee, who's been on the national radar since he was 13, has yet to play a game in his senior season after undergoing knee surgery in October. With the Vikings struggling, Reese has maintained he plans to return after the holiday break.
Jose Roman, Shoemaker - After not getting all-district consideration a year ago, the 6-foot-6 junior post has opened the 2011-12 season on fire, leading the Grey Wolves to their best start in years by carrying the teams in both scoring and rebounds.
Cory Scott, Copperas Cove - The junior shooting guard is the Bulldawgs' best and most experienced offensive weapon, especially from long range, and will play a pivotal role if Cove is going to end its long-standing postseason drought.
Games to watch
Ellison vs. Harker Heights (Jan. 3 at Heights, Jan. 27 at Ellison) - As the top two district finishers from last year, this year's battles could turn into a fight just to make the playoffs.
Copperas Cove vs. Harker Heights (Jan. 13 at Cove, at Feb. 27 at Heights) - The Bulldawgs have the talent to compete with anybody, and if they are going to dig themselves out of the 12-5A basement, a win over the defending champs could go a long way.
Copperas Cove vs. Shoemaker (Jan. 10 at Shoemaker, Feb. 3 at Cove) - The No. 4 seed could be decided by who wins these games, as both Cove and Shoemaker are on the playoff bubble.
Ellison vs. Shoemaker (Jan. 13 at Ellison, Feb. 7 at Shoemaker) - The crosstown rivals feature similarly put together teams chalk full of youth and talent to go along with well-coached fundamentals.