ND vs. Richwoods, Part 1

Tom Batters
Peoria Notre Dame center Max Bielfeldt blocks a shot from Richwoods guard Aaron Davis in one of three games between the two conference rivals last year.

The gym at Peoria Notre Dame High School, which is fondly known as “the Kitchen,” is the last place on earth a claustrophobic or somebody sensitive to noise would want to be Friday night.

Hundreds of people will pack the courtside bleachers and balcony rafters to full capacity.

Inevitably, that bald guy who yells “raaaaaar” every 30 seconds will be there. His strange groans will be heard over the frenetic cheers of the fans.

The “green Superhero guy” Notre Dame fan will be there, dressed in his bright green spandex suit. He will lead chants of “We are the Irish! The mighty, mighty Irish!”

But, the real action will happen on the basketball court.

Mid-State 6 Conference rivals Peoria Notre Dame and Richwoods will play at “the Kitchen” at 7:30 p.m. Friday in one of the most anticipated basketball games of the season.

If you love basketball and don’t mind crowds and some raucous noise, then you won’t want to miss this game, which will showcase two of the top teams in the area (it’s unfortunate that only one of them can win the Regional come February).

So, who has the edge?

I’m not going to predict a winner. I’ll just break down some of the matchups and give a check mark to the team that I think has the advantage. Don’t take my word for it, though. Come out Friday and see these great matchups for yourself. Just be sure to get there early, and, if you get a good seat, guard it with your life.

Guards:  ? Richwoods

This is a tough one.

Both teams have outstanding backcourts with experienced, athletic guards who can handle the ball and make shots.

I am giving the edge to Richwoods because I think senior Tylon Deal is playing as well as anybody in the area right now.

He has explosive speed to the basket, especially when he gets the ball off a defensive rebound and sprints to the other end of the court for an easy layup.

Richwoods senior point guard Aaron Davis is as solid as they get at that position.

Richwoods senior Mason Alwan is deadly from three-point range, but he can drive to the basket, too.

The Irish also have an excellent point guard. Senior Nick Rochford is cool and confident when he runs the Irish offense. He doesn’t get rattled and he takes care of the ball.

Notre Dame senior Tyler Les, one of the purest three-point shooters in the area, has developed into an all-around player who can score from anywhere on the court. There is nobody better at converting big free throws at the end of a close game.

Notre Dame senior Justin Smith is an excellent defender and good shooter.

Forwards/centers: 

? Notre Dame

Max Bielfeldt, a 6’8” junior, seems to have a double-double (at least 10 points and 10 rebounds) in the books before the game even starts most nights. He has a huge advantage over Richwoods forwards David Anderson and T.J. Cole (both are 6’4”).

Bielfeldt can overpower smaller opponents in the paint, but he can also hit 10-foot jump shots routinely.

His fellow “twin tower,” 6’8” junior Drew Blumenshine, will also present problems for the smaller Richwoods forwards.

Don’t count out Cole, Anderson and 6’3” senior Tony Frazier, though. Cole can hit those 10-footers, too, and Anderson is very good at chipping in second-chance points off offensive rebounds.

Frazier has played well since returning to the team a few weeks ago, and the Knights have found a way to get the best of taller teams.

Bench:  ? Richwoods

Only two of the forwards (Anderson, Cole or Frazier) will start the game, which means the Knights will have a nice weapon coming off the bench.

Richwoods junior guard Will Jenkins leads a strong group of guards who can provide some minutes if Deal, Davis or Alwan get into foul trouble.

The Irish starting five are more likely to play the entire game, and they can’t afford to get into foul trouble.

Notre Dame junior guards Brett Lane and Cody Gilfillan have played well, and senior forward Brian Garland is capable of contributing if Bielfeldt or Blumenshine need a rest.

Defense: 

? Notre Dame

Smith will go against Deal for most of the night. That’s a tough assignment, but, if anyone can shut down the Richwoods ”go-to guy,” Smith can.

Deal is an outstanding defender himself. The battle between Deal and Les will be fun to watch.

The best defender on the court, however, is Bielfeldt. He moves gracefully for a big guy and he has a knack for deflecting passes and shots.

Look for him to get at least one “highlight reel” block like the one he got against Peoria Central a couple weeks ago (it almost took out a whole row of Central cheerleaders along the baseline).

Both teams play aggressive, tenacious team defense. They don’t allow easy looks at the basket, and they execute their defensive assignments effectively.

I’ll give the edge to the Irish, though, because of Smith and Bielfeldt, two players who would make anyone’s “all defensive” team.

Rebounding: 

? Notre Dame

I mentioned that the Knights, champions of the Pekin Insurance Holiday Tournament, have found a way to go toe-to-toe in the paint against taller teams, but I would be surprised if Richwoods gets the rebounding edge in this one.

Bielfeldt will grab at least 10 boards himself, and Blumenshine and Garland will get their share.

Coaching:  ? Even

The skeptics will accuse me of “waffling” on this one for fear of upsetting one of these coaches.

That’s not it, though.

I really wanted to pick one over the other, but, after much deliberation, I cannot find a clear advantage.

Richwoods coach Mike Ellis and Notre Dame coach Eddie Mathews are two of the premier coaches in the area.

Ellis molded his under-sized team into a tenacious beast capable of slaying much bigger opponents. He knew his team would be smaller than most teams, so he tailored his practices and gameplans to accommodate that disadvantage.

So far, it is working.

Mathews does a great job creating mismatches and out-scheming other teams. If another coach double-teams Bielfeldt, then Mathews mobilizes his guards and beats the other team on the wing.

If an opponent puts heavy pressure on the perimeter, Mathews counters by pounding the ball inside to Bielfeldt and Blumenshine.

Mathews deserves credit for installing a high-powered, fast-break offense that requires his big guys to run the floor just as much as the guards. As a result, the Irish have an offensive attack that is fun to watch, when it is clicking on all cylinders.

Ellis has a better postseason record, including a state runner-up trophy in 2006 and a win over Notre Dame in last year’s thrilling Regional final game. But Mathews led the Irish to two victories over Richwoods in the regular season last year.

All this, of course, will not mean a thing once the referee tosses the ball in the air Friday night.

I do not know who is going to win, or if any of my matchup predictions will come true.

I do know that this game will be one of the better games all season.

By the way, the two teams play again Feb. 12 at Richwoods.

Plan on getting there early for that one, too.