Possible Jefferson City-Helias matchup highlights Great 8

The Joe Machens Great 8 Classic is always full of interesting matchups, but if things go to plan, perhaps the most intriguing will take place on the event’s second day.

The day reserved for winner’s and loser’s bracket semifinals normally just sets the table for the final day. There’s added importance this time around because of one of those matchups.

That’s because the Jefferson City Jays and Helias Crusaders are in the same portion of the bracket, meaning the crosstown rivals could meet in the semifinals if both can post opening-round victories.

Helias coach Josh Buffington said he and Jefferson City coach Blair Thompson are both hoping things go according to plan.

“Blair and I talked about this last year, we were on the same side of the bracket last year and didn’t end up meeting in the semis,” Buffington said. “If it does happen, what a great crowd we’re going to see for the semifinals.

“Any way to spice up the bracket is good, just to get away from maybe the way it has been done traditionally. It very well could happen, and if it does, it will be an exciting Day 2.”

And if it doesn’t, the caliber of teams won’t disappoint, according to Thompson.

“It’s good basketball,” he said. “There’s good coaches, there’s good players, so you know you’re going to get your money’s worth coming over. I’ve watched this tournament as a fan, I’ve played in it, and now I’m coaching in it. It’s my favorite tournament that I get to go to every year — by a lot.

“It continues to be one of the premier tournaments around.”

The kickoff press conference for the event was held Wednesday at Joe Machens Capital City Ford Lincoln. This year’s event will start Friday, Dec. 27, and run through Sunday, Dec. 29.

Helias’ first game in the event comes at 7 p.m. Dec. 27 against Western High School (Louisville, Ky.), while Jefferson City’s opener is at 8:30 p.m. that day against Oxford (Miss.) High School.

“We know they’re going to be very athletic, based on what I’ve read about them and from what they return from last year,” Thompson said. “Those are the kind of matchups you’re looking for. It’s something different.”

Thompson said he and the Jefferson City coaching staff will start scouting the Chargers within the next week.

“That’s one thing the whole Internet age has helped with, is this out-of-state stuff,” Thompson said. “It used to be about word of mouth. Now, we can get film and watch it.”

Other first-round games are Battle vs. Tulsa (Okla.) Central at 4 p.m. and Raytown South vs. Upper Arlington (Ohio) at 5:30 p.m.

“From the standpoint of a player and coach, it’s really an honor to be a part of it,” Buffington said. “It’s an invitation-only tournament and the perks of it are great. Some special events take place within the tournament that you can relate to what goes on with the state tournament.”

Buffington said one of the things he likes best about the event is the chance to play three games in three days.

“You get to see superb talent from the players, you get to see some very, very good coaches going at it, and on top of that, you’re in a different format than most tournaments are around the state,” he said. “It’s a quick turnaround, it’s quick preparation. Maybe your legs aren’t 100 percent by the second part of Day 2, definitely into Day 3, and you have to be able to perform, and perform at a high level, because if you don’t, you’re going to get beat.

“And not only are you preparing for a game that’s less than 24 hours away, but you’re also preparing for what may be a totally different style.”

It seems strange for the Crusaders to be talking about games that are three weeks away, especially considering they haven’t even played an official game yet. Helias’ season opener is set for Tuesday at home against Battle.

“We’re 0-0 right now, but it’s right around the corner that we’ll be playing in the Great 8,” Buffington said.

Jefferson City is in a similar boat as the Jays open the season tonight at Smith-Cotton.

But getting a later start isn’t exactly a bad thing for Thompson’s crew.

“I think we needed the extra time to get some more reps for our younger guys,” he said. “Coincidentally, we had a few injuries that happened early on and some extra time has give those guys time to heal. With all that being said — our first game being (today) — it really couldn’t come at a better time.”

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