By Tom Westerholm
MUSKEGON–Muskegon boys basketball will play a late-season game against Kalamazoo Central on Tuesday for the fifth season in a row, once again taking advantage of an opportunity to tune up before the state tournament against another of the state’s top teams.
Here’s everything you need to know.
DATE & TIME
Tuesday, Feb. 28 – Kalamazoo Central at Muskegon, 7 p.m.
Kalamazoo Central: 18-2 overall, 7-1 in the Southwestern Michigan – East conference
Like Muskegon, the Maroon Giants have played a tough schedule, taking on some of the highest-ranked teams in the state. Kalamazoo dropped both of its losses within a week of each other, falling to Brother Rice and Lakeview in January, and they haven’t lost since.
Kalamazoo coach Ramsey Nichols credited his team for coming together despite losing four starters to graduation.
“To come back and have the season we’ve had is just a testament to the group of guys I have this year and how they’ve bought in,” Nichols said. “They aren’t playing with each other, they are playing for each other.”
Muskegon: 19-2 overall, 14-0 in the OK Conference-Green.
Fresh off a dominant win over Mona Shores, the Big Reds are looking forward to a tough test in their final tune-up before district play begins.
“I think that’s what we’re looking to get out of it, get a tournament atmosphere before the tournament,” Muskegon coach Keith Guy said. “We want to get tested a little bit.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ward leads Kalamazoo in scoring and rebounding, and like Jordan Briggs, he is a candidate for Mr. Basketball in Michigan. Nichols described Ward as a “breakout” star – a 6-foot-8 forward who can score from all three levels.
“We always knew what Hutch was capable of, and he’s put in the work,” Nichols said. “So it definitely wasn’t a surprise to me because he’s put in a lot of hours of work. The fruits of his labor are showing now.”
Kalamazoo has several other high-level contributors including Jones, who Nichols described as the Maroon Giants’ best defender.
“He sacrifices a lot of his game to make sure that our team is running successfully,” Nichols said. “I don’t have to ask him to defend the other team’s best player. He wants to take on that assignment.”
Anthony Sydnor III
Briggs scored his 1,000th point and broke Muskegon’s 3-point record in the same game on Friday, helping lift the Big Reds to a blowout victory over crosstown rival Mona Shores. Part of a decorated senior class that includes Sydnor III and David Day III, Briggs’ combination of 3-point shooting and a steady hand at point guard has played a major role in Muskegon’s highly successful regular season.
“He’s meant so much,” Guy said. “I’ve watched him develop into the player he is today. It’s because of the time he spends in the gym. … The way he shoots the ball, what you see him doing all season, that’s what he does. He works on his craft, and that’s a testament to all the young players coming behind him, that you have to put in some work in this game and you’ll get good results.”
Sydnor III, meanwhile, has been limited somewhat by injuries and illness, but has shined in his time on the floor both as a shooter and as a confident slasher and finisher around the rim.
“He’s always in the right place, and he’s shooting a high percentage from 3,” Guy said. “He’s a guy I think a lot of people forget about, but he’s just as good as Jordan. They are 1 and 1a on our team. He’s a guy you have to account for, he’s a great defender, and he’s smart just like Jordan. He’s been through a lot of battles and wars.”
THREE KEY QUESTIONS
- How will the Big Reds defend Ward?
Guy wasn’t quite ready to divulge all of his plans to defend the Kalamazoo star on Sunday, but he did offer one strategy.
“You just pray he hopefully misses,” Guy said, chuckling. “We’ve got to try to make it tough for him.”
Ward presents an intriguing problem for a team like Muskegon, which has a number of high-level guards as well as plenty of size. Montrel Oliver also has taken on an increased role for the Big Reds as they deal with injuries.
“We’ll mix it up and we hopefully try different combinations and see what works, see what goes,” Guy said. “… Hopefully we can play good enough defense to make him shoot a bad percentage, but he’s the real deal.”
- How will the familiarity between the two programs play out?
The connections between Muskegon and Kalamazoo go beyond their now-annual late-season showdowns. Guy and Nichols have both built programs that are perennial contenders, and they are good friends off the court – sharing notes and tips when they meet at offseason clinics and camps. Guy said both coaches employ honest, old-school methods while building relationships with their players.
“We love to compete against each other,” Guy said. “We bounce things off each other outside of basketball, you just can’t find a better guy than Ramsey, that’s for sure.”
Meanwhile, both Briggs and Ward are committed to Wayne State next season – two Mr. Basketball candidates that highlight an impressive recruiting class for the Warriors.
“They talk often now,” Guy said. “I mean, it’s two great players, two Mr. Basketball guys who I think are being somewhat overlooked when it comes to some of the other candidates. Both have a lot to prove, and I think they have a good situation over at Wayne State.”
- What can both Muskegon and Kalamazoo learn from one another?
Both coaches expect to gain plenty of knowledge about both themselves and their opponent from Tuesday’s showdown.
For Muskegon, which has a bye in its first round of the district tournament, the goal is simply to be pushed.
“We want to compete,” Guy said. “I want to see us really come out and compete and play the style of basketball and play up to our standard and expectations. I know it’s a tough battle, a lot of teams don’t take these tough ones at the end, but hats off to Coach Nichols, and we’re just happy that we’ve done this the last 3-4 years. We’ve all been better going into the tournament because of it.”
“Iron sharpens iron,” Nichols added. “We want to give each other a tune-up prior to the district coming, so that’s why we schedule this game.”