SWC boys playoff seeding comes down to the wire

The battle for playoff positioning in Southwest Conference boys basketball was supposed to be tight, but this year's race has been more unpredictable than any other in recent history.

With only one game remaining, the only secure thing about the SWC seeding is that it will include Sheldon, South Medford, North Medford and South Eugene. Where each team fits in, that's another matter.

Thursday's regular-season finales will determine the playoff position for all four teams, with South Medford and South Eugene capable of drawing three different playoff paths depending on the outcomes.

"I knew it was going to be tight, and I was certain no one was going to go through (the SWC schedule) undefeated," said South Medford coach Dennis Murphy on Monday. "But how many losses each team would incur and how the season would play out, I don't think you could've predicted this."

Entering Thursday's games, Sheldon (18-5, 11-3 SWC) holds a one-game lead over South Medford (17-6, 10-4) and is two games up on North Medford (17-5, 9-5) and South Eugene (13-10, 9-5). Roseburg (3-19, 2-12) and Grants Pass (6-16, 1-13) round out the standings.

In the finales, South Medford plays host to Sheldon, while North Medford is at South Eugene and Grants Pass at Roseburg.

Sheldon is in a less stressful position than the others. If the Irish beat the Panthers, they earn the SWC's No. 1 seed to the Class 6A state playoffs. If the Panthers prevail, then they get the No. 1 spot — and at least a share of their eighth straight league title — and the Irish are No. 2.

"We're happy with where we're at," said Sheldon coach Ron Lampe, whose team has split its two games thus far with South Medford. "I would've loved to had it (the SWC title) wrapped up by now, but the bottom line is everybody's goal is to get to Mac Court (for the eight-team state tournament). We'll play well Thursday, and if we don't win and end up tying and going as the No. 2, we'll be OK with that, too."

North Medford is in a similar position to Sheldon, albeit with a much different playoff path in its future. If the Black Tornado beats South Eugene, North Medford enters the state playoffs as the No. 3 seed. A win by the Axemen would drop North Medford to the No. 4 spot.

"That's one good thing for us is we pretty much know where we're slotted win or lose," said North Medford coach Scott Plankenhorn. "There's nothing anybody can do for us."

The playoff picture for both South programs, however, is certainly more advantageous with a win — or maybe a little help — on Thursday.

Even with a loss to Sheldon, the Panthers can still claim the No. 2 seed if North Medford beats South Eugene since they hold the tiebreaker edge over their cross-town rivals. Should South Medford lose and South Eugene win, however, the Axemen would take the No. 2 spot and the Panthers would drop to No. 3 due to South Eugene's edge in the tiebreaker.

"What this whole thing tells us is the four of us are pretty close, very close actually," said Murphy of finishing with any one of the top three seeds depending on Thursday's outcomes. "The sweeps that we've had with Sheldon over South Eugene and South Eugene over us and us over North Medford have been bizarre in itself."

Lampe credits the odd circumstances, which have also included North Medford winning 2 of 3 over his team, with how the teams have matched up with one another.

"This year has been all about matchups," said the coach. "That's how you can explain all the sweeps that have happened. For us, we don't match up well with North Medford at all."

Thursday's matchups don't appear to favor one team since the series is tied between the Panthers and Irish and Black Tornado and Axemen.

South Medford led Sheldon by six before losing 61-55 at home early in the season, and the Panthers made some big plays last time to upset the Irish 67-66 in Eugene. South Eugene beat North Medford 68-59 at home the first time those teams squared off, and the Black Tornado returned the favor in Medford with a 57-46 triumph.

"What I would expect is everybody is going to bring their best effort, and if you don't, you're surely not going to like the outcome of the game," said Murphy.

Sheldon is the only one of the four teams that has slowed somewhat after a torrid start that saw the Irish win their first eight conference games. Sheldon is 3-3 since.

South Medford has won three straight and seven of its last eight games, while North Medford has won 5 of 6 and South Eugene 5 of 7 entering Thursday.

The perks in seeding are obvious.

The SWC's No. 1 seed will host David Douglas (Mt. Hood No. 4) next Tuesday and a victory would give the SWC champions another home date against the winner of a first-round matchup between Sunset (Metro No. 3) and the No. 2 team in the Three Rivers League — which has West Linn, Lake Oswego and Oregon City all neck-and-neck for the Nos. 1-3 seeds.

The SWC's No. 2 seed — which may have the best path of all — will host Clackamas (Three Rivers No. 4) in its playoff opener. A win would mean a date with the winner between Newberg (Pacific No. 2) and Barlow (Mt. Hood No. 3) for the right to advance to the state tournament.

The SWC's No. 3 seed opens on the road against Pacific No. 3, which is either Canby or Forest Grove, and a win would set up a date at Jesuit (Metro No. 1) in the second round.

The SWC's No. 4 seed opens on the road at Westview (Metro No. 2) and, should it clear that hurdle, then plays at Central Catholic (Mt. Hood No. 1) for a spot among the final eight teams.

"This league has really prepared everybody, no matter what spot they're in," said Plankenhorn. "But at the same time, this whole state is a situation where anybody could beat anybody. It could be four teams (from the SWC) or it could be none (making it to Eugene). The talent throughout the state is pretty even, so whichever team shows up and plays best will probably advance."

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